The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the nation's six regional accreditors, has dealt a sharp setback to the for-profit education provider Bridgepoint Education Inc. by denying initial accreditation to the company's largely online Ashford University.
In documents that the accreditor made public Monday, the team that reviewed Ashford's application for accreditation cited numerous areas where it said the institution failed to comply with the association's standards, including a high turnover of students, a vastly inadequate number of full-time faculty and student support staff, and inconsistent quality and rigor in the curriculum. The accreditor's report also voiced concerns about the Ashford's independence from Bridgepoint and its financial viability.
The decision by the Western Association is not the death knell for Ashford, which remains fully accredited by another regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, through the 2014-15 academic year.
But the most recent action by the Western Association presents a serious challenge for the institution and its parent company, which have been under heavy scrutiny from members of Congress, the Education Department, critics of for-profit education in general, and speculators on Wall Street. Bridgepoint's shares plunged nearly 30 percent on the early news that the accreditor had denied Ashford's initial accreditation.
A statement by the company, which declined through a spokesperson to respond to specific issues in the report, said that Ashford was "disappointed" and plans to appeal the association's decision. Ashford will also have an opportunity to reapply to the Western Association for another decision in one year.
Ashford's accreditation has been controversial since Bridgepoint created the university in 2005 through the purchase of the Franciscan University of the Prairies, a small Catholic institution in eastern Iowa.
The Higher Learning Commission transferred Franciscan's accreditation to the new for-profit entity, raising concerns that the company was interested only in the older institution's accreditation and would neglect the physical campus in Clinton, a town near the Mississippi River.
Since then both the Higher Learning Commission and the university have come under scrutiny as federal regulators and members of Congress have questioned the quality of education that Ashford provides and whether the university is deserving of federal student financial aid.
A college must be accredited by a federally recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal student aid, such as Pell Grants or federally-backed student loans.
The commission has altered its policies, essentially ending the possibility that accreditation can simply be purchased by acquiring an accredited campus. And it has put in place another policy that is forcing Ashford to seek accreditation from a different regional organization: a requirement that the institutions it accredits have a "substantial presence" in its 19-state region. That measure will require that a majority of a college's administrative and business operations be located within the region, along with at least one campus.
While Ashford's Iowa campus has grown to nearly 1,000 students, its online enrollment is nearly 100 times larger and most of its operations are headquartered at Bridgepoint's offices in San Diego, within the geographic reach of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
The review by the Western Association, however, has been a substantially more rigorous and revealing process than Ashford faced initially under the Higher Learning Commission.
The Western Association has recently completed an overhaul of its accreditation policies and procedures, which will provide more transparency about the strengths and weaknesses of its member institutions. As part of that process, the association has become the first accreditor, for example, to release reports of the teams that visit and review an institution, and the action letter that describes why the association accepts or rejects a college's application for accreditation.
For Ashford, the Western Association took several extra steps to show that it was taking a hard look at the university. The association appointed a 12-member team of reviewers to assess Ashford, including representatives of both nonprofit and for-profit colleges and some of the nation's best-known thinkers on higher education. Among them were Stanley O. Ikenberry, president emeritus of the University of Illinois; Jane V. Wellman, former executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability; and Michael J. Offerman, founder and president emeritus of Capella University.
In addition to the usual site visit to the Iowa campus, which was conducted by five reviewers and included interviews with faculty, staff and students, the association set up a confidential e-mail account to receive any feedback from people who worked for or attended the college. The association received more than 23,000 anonymous responses to a survey sent to all students and hired the auditing firm KPMG to review the college's finances.
While the association praised Ashford for its cooperation during the review process, its report confirms many of the most serious criticisms about the institution's operations.
In particular, the association was concerned that "a large proportion of students who enter the degree programs at Ashford withdraw, most within a short period of time." Nearly 128,000 students have withdrawn from programs during the past five years, the association's action letter says, "during which time 240,000 new students were enrolled. This level of attrition is, on its face, not acceptable," the association concluded.
Another significant concern, the association wrote, is that Ashford is spending far too much to recruit students and too little to support their academic success. The team of reviewers found that nearly a third of Ashford's spending went to recruitment, "well above spending for instructional costs and services, which ... include both direct spending on faculty and the administration of financial aid, student services and academic support."
The university employs about 50 full-time faculty members, most of them "recently hired," along with just 14 writing specialists to assist students and 38 instructional specialists to serve more than 2,500 adjuncts.
The reviewers also concluded that the rigor of course work "was not always at the appropriate level for the course," and that faculty members' response to students online work "were often limited to a few words of encouragement and lacking in substantive exchange between student and teacher."
Ralph A. Wolff, president of the association's Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, said the extensive process was meant to provide an evidence-based reason for the association's decision on Ashford.
It's also an example, he said of the association's commitment to demonstrate that accreditation can reassure the public without restricting the variety of approaches and missions in American higher education.
"Public confidence in the value and quality of higher education is very mixed," Mr. Wolff said. "The public and policy makers need to know that we're doing a good job."