The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

March 9, 2013

HERALD'S OPINION: Ashford is headed in correct direction

CLINTON — With all the press in recent months about Ashford University and the accreditation it sought through the Western Association of Schools and College, the subsequent denial and then the steps taken by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central College Association to review accreditation here, the Clinton Herald Editorial Board was eager to meet with university officials recently about the steps they are taking to shore up concerns presented by those two commissions.

The news we got from them at the end of February was good, to say the least. We left that meeting with a strong sense that the university is taking the steps necessary to meet criteria.

Those steps? A new governance document is written, a firewall is being built between the educational arm and the business end of the for-profit parent company Bridgepoint Education, advisers are being assigned to students for a longer amount of time and an evaluation of all 1,200 classes offered by the university — both online and on-campus — is under way to reach the end goal of student success, thereby improving retention and graduation rates.

Now, we were surprised then when just two days later we learned that Ashford University has been placed on notice by its accrediting body, HLC, because of concerns that it is not meeting the accreditor’s criteria. It turns out that Bridgepoint Education officials around the same time as our meeting received a letter from HLC that the university has been placed on notice — a status that indicates a university is pursuing a course of action that, if continued, could lead to it being out of compliance with one or more criteria of accreditation.

It’s been an ongoing struggle for Ashford, which was founded as Mount St. Clare College and has grown greatly as the result of online education offerings and student recruitment after being acquired by Bridgepoint in 2005. But we still have a strong sense that the university is headed the right way as it works to provide a quality education for all students.

First, here’s the backstory: Ashford, whose campus is located along Clinton’s Bluff Boulevard, is fully accredited by the HLC, which is the accrediting body for a 19-state region, including Iowa. But Bridgepoint, the parent company, is located in California. Ashford is currently pursuing accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting body that covers institutions in California where Ashford maintains a substantial administrative and executive presence and where a majority of the for-profit institutions’ students are based.

Ashford was denied initial accreditation by the WASC in June and officials stated they would reapply for accreditation. According to HLC policy and federal regulations, if another institutional accrediting body takes an adverse or probationary action against an HLC institution, the HLC must begin a review of the institution to determine if sanctions, further action or removal of accreditation were appropriate, according to a disclosure from the HLC. The HLC Board of Trustees also has noted Ashford had not demonstrated that it was substantially present in the region as required by a jurisdictional policy the board adopted in June 2012.

In December, Ashford filed a plan to come into compliance immediately with the substantial presence requirement in July 2013 should it not achieve accreditation with WASC, according to a disclosure from the HLC. The HLC Board determined it was in students’ best interest to allow Ashford a limited amount of time to complete the WASC accreditation process before taking further action regarding the substantial presence issue.

The HLC Commission requested a report from Ashford regarding its accreditation status with the WASC by July 10. If Ashford is not accredited by the WASC, it will need to host a focused evaluation no later than Oct. 1 to evaluate if it has taken steps to comply with the substantial presence requirement. The evaluation also will examine issues noted by the WASC in denying accreditation. In placing Ashford on notice, the HLC’s board also noted concerns related to the alignment of the university mission with its instructional model, governance of the university independent from its corporate parent, sufficiency of faculty, assessment of student learning and use of data to improve graduation and retention rates, and shared governance structures involving faculty and administration, according to the HLC disclosure.

These were parallel to the items discussed between the Editorial Board, Ashford University President Richard Pattenaude and Vice President John Ballheim at our meeting on Feb. 27. At that time, Pattenaude, who has extensive background in online college education, said the university is about halfway through this process and that in no way will Clinton’s campus be adversely affected.  Even in light of the recent notification, we believe Ashford will persevere and will become an even stronger institution while leading the way in online learning for those students who are challenged by time and geography as they work to obtain their degrees.

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