The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 22, 2012

BIELEMA: Will Ashford's successes translate to future?

By Charlene Bielema
Herald Editor

CLINTON — During the past few weeks, Clinton’s Ashford University has had some exciting news to share.

Among the news is the selection of Meg Schebler, Ashford University director of athletics, as one of eight 2012 Administrator of the Year Award recipients by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.

Under Schebler’s guidance, AU successfully transitioned into a new conference affiliation in July, the Saints have appeared in more NAIA national championship tournaments than ever before, and after winning the Midwest Collegiate Conference Presidents’ Cup in back-to-back seasons, Ashford placed all 15 eligible NAIA athletic programs on the NAIA Scholar-Team list for the 2011-2012 academic year.

Then the Iowa State Board of Education announced its approval of the university’s college of education program for a seven-year cycle. The approval means students successfully completing the Clinton campus teacher preparation program continue to be eligible for a teaching license in Iowa.

And then this week, the university announced it is honoring former biology instructor Sister Francis Clare Ladd, OSF, by renaming its renovated science structure “The Ladd Science Building.”

Ladd worked at Mount St. Clare College from 1944-1957 and from 1961-1978 as an instructor and chairwoman of the biology department.

The science building was originally constructed in 1965, and the multi-million dollar, 28,169-square-foot project, which is the first to include major improvements to the building, features eight laboratories, five classrooms and 12 offices.

But the news hasn’t all been as positive. First there was announcement in July that Ashford is to undergo a special monitoring process by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges as the HLC seeks to ensure the university is complying with the HLC’s jurisdictional requirements.

That announcement came shortly after action by the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges denied accreditation to the university.

To clarify, Ashford is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and a member of the HLC’s North Central Association through 2015. 

The HLC is the accrediting body for a 19-state region, including Iowa, where Ashford maintains its residential campus in Clinton.

WASC is one of seven regional accrediting commissions, accrediting schools in California, Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Islands. Ashford was seeking the WASC accreditation because the primary focus of its activities have shifted from Iowa to California — where its parent company, Bridgepoint Education, is located — since Ashford was accredited by the HLC in 2006.

The crux of the issue is jurisdictional in nature: Ashford’s online enrollment has increased tenfold in recent years, with most of its students being served out of the San Diego office, according to the background information provided by the WASC.

In our earlier reporting, we noted that while the WASC has acknowledged Ashford’s “substantial investment” to the Clinton campus, it noted several deficiencies for accreditation in its region. 

Among the items that did not meet accreditation standards were student retention and completion methods including tracking student progress, a sufficient core of full-time faculty members, and an effective system for assuring and monitoring student learning and academic rigor.

That isn’t good news since such an allegation negatively reflects on the core mission of an institution and its practices.

In a letter to the Herald issued after the initial reports of the accreditation denial, Ashford President Elizabeth Tice stated that for any institution of higher learning, the pursuit of academic excellence is a continuous journey: “Ashford University remains fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges and we are confident we will remain so. Ashford is committed to full compliance with all accreditation criteria, and will continue cooperating fully with all accrediting bodies. We view this process as an opportunity to improve our academic offerings and to strive for the highest level of educational quality – to make our strong and dynamic institution even stronger.”

She also addressed a report issued as the result of a two-year federal investigation of the for-profit higher-education industry.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, had released the detailed report to reveal what the majority Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions — chaired by Harkin — determined are the business practices of 30 education companies, including Ashford University’s parent company Bridgepoint Education.

The report alleged some scathing claims about Bridgepoint including that in 2010 the company spent a larger proportion (29.7 percent) of its revenue on marketing than any other publicly traded education company, had the highest withdrawal rates of any Associate’s Degree program from an education company and employed more than four times the amount of recruiters as it did student services employees.

Harkin, whose wife sits on the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa, has been critical of Bridgepoint Education in the past, last year calling the education company “a scam.”

Tice, in her letter, said of that report: “Particularly disappointing in recent weeks was the potentially misleading information in the report on for-profit higher education issued on July 29, 2012 by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin. Several points are important to know in order to understand the full context of the report.  Many of our students, particularly those online, are among the non-traditional, adult learner population who do not attend college in a continuous two- or four-year block. This makes Ashford’s overall graduation rates difficult to analyze based on the traditional model of higher education.”

She said the report did not mention that in 2011, Ashford University undergraduate programs had a five-year graduation rate, based on completion of the second course, of approximately 50 percent.

Nationally, for all higher education institutions, the five-year Bachelor’s degree graduation rate was 52.6 percent. She also pointed out that Ashford has significantly more faculty and academic personnel than suggested in the report, including 100 full-time faculty and more than 3,000 adjunct faculty, 700 teaching assistants, 25 high-level academic administrators, and more than 150 academic support staff.

She also said Ashford’s cost to the U.S. taxpayer is less than suggested relative to traditional public colleges when factoring in state funding that Ashford does not receive and, according to a 2010 study, The Public Costs of Higher Education, for every $1 in direct support per student for private sector institutions from federal state and local governments, traditional colleges and universities received considerably more – private not-for-profit institutions received $8.69 per student and public institutions received $19.38 per student.

Tice makes a good argument against the report, especially since the minority members of the committee responsible for the report have admonished the majority for being unwilling to work together with the minority and said the majority failed to provide proper context for the findings of the report, mischaracterized findings, drafted witness testimony and included previously discredited testimony.

Right now, Ashford is required to provide the HLC with an implementation plan by Dec. 1 that demonstrates how the university will comply with HLC’s policy on substantial presence in the event that a migration to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges either will not occur or is significantly delayed.

The HLC Board of Trustees will review the implementation plan at its February 2013 meeting to determine whether it is acceptable.

If Ashford University is required to exercise the implementation plan, it must accomplish the move of its core operations to the 19-state north central region immediately after the anticipated June 2013 WASC decision.

To ensure that Ashford University has sufficient time to prepare for a planned Oct. 22 HLC Advisory Visit while simultaneously providing timely information to the visiting team, the university was ordered to report that it is demonstrating compliance with HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation and Core Components in two phases. The final phase of that report was due Friday.

No doubt this is a complicated issue and comes down to how the university is carrying out its mission, where the university really is doing business, and which commission should oversee it as a result.

There also is a domino effect: The HLC’s work will be used to determine whether Ashford is meeting its standards. If Ashford does not meet the standard it could potentially have its HLC accreditation revoked.

Losing accreditation altogether would have a substantial, negative impact on the for-profit college including the loss of federal funding. That, in turn, would have negative consequences for students who attend the university and our region as a whole.

Obviously, our hope is Ashford will be able to prove it is a solid learning institution.

We trust Tice’s assessments are correct and that the university’s practices will hold up well under the scrutiny as it works to provide educational opportunities to our local community and those students who earn their degrees through its online courses — many of whom would not be able to gain their degrees as traditional on-campus students.

Charlene Bielema has been employed with the Clinton Herald since 1995. She has been the Herald’s editor since 2002.