Perhaps the most significant result of the congressional investigations into for-profit colleges, the majority of which enroll high numbers of online students, is that it has led many of the companies that run these colleges to reconsider not just their business models, but also their academic philosophies. For many for-profit, or “proprietary,” colleges, this has meant significant reform. The latest school to initiate major changes aimed at reducing criticism is Ashford University, which recently slashed the number of its admissions and recruiting staff in favor of a larger number of student support staff.
Ashford University is owned by Bridgepoint Education Inc., and the company hopes that this restructuring, which includes the creation of a “department of student inquiry” to assist underprepared students, will improve not only its services, but also its reputation. Though a very profitable company, with “a 25.30% return on assets and a 44.7% return on equity, to go with a profit margin of almost 16%,” its stocks have dropped dramatically since the investigation revealed significant problems with academic standards, losing more than 50% of their value in the last six months.
Undoubtedly, investors have pulled back from Bridgepoint because of the controversy generated by the congressional investigations led by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who characterized Bridgepoint as “a scam.” For example, the Harkin Report included the revelation that tuition at Bridgepoint schools “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.”
In addition, Bridgepoint and other for-profit schools calibrated their tuition to exactly match however much a student was eligible for in student aid. As reported in The New York Times,
“According to a Bridgepoint Education document, when a new $400 ‘digital materials fee’ would make students pay more than would be available from federal aid, the chief executive frantically wrote an e-mail to the finance officer to complain that the change was going to cause a “shortfall.”
The fallout from such discoveries has been significant, and has not been limited to qualms from investors. It also includes more rigorous examination by academic accreditors. For example, The Denver Post reported that “just a few days after the Western Association denied Ashford’s application, the college’s current accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, notified Bridgepoint that Ashford was under ‘special monitoring’ status and would have to report on ways it intended to improve its academic operations.”
Impact of the Changes
Given the company’s economic situation, it’s tempting to think that these reforms may be all about recapturing consumer and investor confidence, and are not geared toward improving its academic reputation. Is this kind of reform going to actually help students?
It’s hard to tell at this point. Certainly a shift in emphasis away from recruitment and toward retention is a step in the right direction. Ashford University president Dr. Elizabeth Tice’s public statement on the restructuring emphasized the educational impact it will have:
“In concert with the challenges facing higher education and our commitment to the pursuit of academic excellence, our initiatives will focus on student selection and student support. The reorganization allows us to align our services with our continued dedication to student success.”
However, there is one troubling aspect to the restructuring. According to The Denver Post, a significant number of the new student skills specialists are actually just former recruiters, members of the company’s sales force: “200 individuals at Ashford University in Iowa were reassigned to a new department of student inquiry following a skill assessment of the workforce.” This means that of the 450 recruiters it removed from its recruitment/sales force, 200 of them were deemed to possess the skills necessary to evaluate student ability and design the appropriate educational plans.
Call me a skeptic, but I have a hard time believing that all 200 of those employees placed in student support roles have the qualifications to perform academic support, unless Bridgepoint made an effort to hire recruiters who were also educational experts. There has been no indication that they are providing specialized training to these former recruiters to help them identify or address the various student issues that may hinder student progress, such as learning disorders.
I see this as a potential problem for Ashford and other colleges owned by Bridgepoint. They are moving in the right direction in reallocating their resources in new ways that emphasize student success over the bottom line, but they may have lost an opportunity to fully support their new educational philosophy by not initiating a more thorough approach to creating a substantive, high-quality academic support system for their students. It would be better if they invested in student support by hiring fully-trained specialists in educational assessment, subject matter experts, tutors, and learning skills professionals. It’s not enough to create new positions. You have to fill them with the right people. Ashford University is off to a good start. Hopefully, it will keep moving in that direction.