By Katie Dahlstrom
---- — CLINTON — While Nicole Buzzo unpacked her clothes in her Ashford University dorm room, she thought about being on her own for the first time, becoming a teacher and starting college.
The accreditation woes her university faced during the past year didn't infiltrate the excitement, nerves and daydreams she had as she embarked on her post-secondary journey.
As Ashford University students start the school year Monday they do so with the knowledge that their university prevailed in its bid to be accredited by a western regional accrediting body.
"I knew about the accreditation stuff, but I never had to many worries. I felt like if it were something to worry about the school would have told us," said Buzzo, an 18-year-old freshman from Davis Junction, Ill.
Ashford University in July earned accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, bringing to a close a year-long battle that started when the same organization denied Ashford's initial bid.
WASC denied Ashford initial accreditation last year because of the university's focus on student recruitment rather than student success, among other noted issues.
That denial caught the attention of the university's then accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, which put Ashford on notice with a warning to either change or face losing accreditation. Ashford maintained HLC accreditation through the entire process.
After making several changes to address WASC concerns such as boosting its board of trustees with former Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy and shifting jobs from student recruitment to student retention, the university was awarded a five-year initial accreditation from WASC.
Ashford officials and students celebrated the victory.
"When I learned we got the accreditation I was relieved. I didn't realize how how anxious I really was over it," Buzzo said.
Before the accreditation bid was awarded, the for-profit university also added 200 full-time faculty members and reduced the amount of admissions representatives by more than 50 percent and overall workforce by roughly 20 percent through a buy-out program as part of the university's effort to better align the number of staff with students.
Monce Medina, 23, will have two degrees from Ashford once she graduates this year. After completing her undergraduate education, she decided to pursue a master's in organizational management. She also serves as a resident assistant for the Clinton campus.
"I'm excited. I've been very busy, but I'm ready to start," the Belvidere, Ill., native said.
She hopes to work for the admissions office at the university after she graduates and also is worry-free about her college being on solid ground.
"I never really feared. I trusted that we would be accredited. It's a relief to know we are, but I never had fear," she said.
Not everyone in the Ashford University family had as worry free a year as Buzzo and Medina.
Vice President and Campus Director John Ballheim breathed a heavy sigh of relief this summer knowing he could focus on students' educations rather than soothing accreditation concerns.
"It was a very painful year, because that raises questions in the public of 'is that a credible institution?' We always thought we were and we remained accredited by HLC. Now we have a solid five-year accreditation and there are no major concerns," Ballheim said. "It is nice to have this confirmed. Now we can move forward without that black cloud."
It's not entirely blue skies ahead. Ashford's parent company, Bridgepoint Education, is under investigation by attorneys general in Iowa, California, New York and North Carolina for reasons including claims that the company made misleading phone calls in an effort to recruit students.
However, Ballheim contended, Ashford is autonomous from Bridgepoint, meaning the business does not dictate education.
During WASC's visit to the campus 18 months ago, officials didn't identify any any major concerns with the Clinton campus, which represents a small portion of Ashford University. Of the university's 71,685 students, less than 1,000 earn their degrees in Clinton.
The campus didn't undergo any major changes as part of the accreditation bid, but this summer has brought investment into the campus. Students will find updated classrooms, technology, bathrooms and dorms when they return for classes.
Officials say they also will find a myriad of faculty and staff committed to their education.
"We never lost accreditation, but there was that question out there. And if there's a question, why would you even take that risk? We will have to show it's not a risk. And we do that by doing our jobs and doing them seriously and we do it with good results. Over time, that will speak for itself," Ballheim said.