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Online Education Catches the Attention of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Part 1 of 3

to PA TIMES Online’s newest column, The Learning Corner. The column’s
author is ASPA member Dovie Dawson (see About the Author box). Columns
will be published once monthly and focus on the benefits of online
education within the higher education realm, beginning with this
three-part series on how one of the fastest growing online educators
became a case study for the U.S. Senate.

Dovie D. Dawson

For-profit institutions are a hot topic within the walls of the White House. This is due to the dramatic increase of enrollment in distant or commonly known as online educational programs across the nation. However, most for-profit institutions rely heavily upon federal funding which supports their student base. Senator Tom Harkin (Harkin) of Iowa, a Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), became interested in a fast growing for-profit institution right in his very own backyard–Ashford University, subsidiary of Bridgepoint Education, Inc. (BPI). This topic will be covered in three parts: investigation/hearing, response of BPI and societal implications.

Ashford University, a subsidiary of BPI, is located in Clinton, Iowa. Previously a religious private college, established in 1918, was operated by nuns and fell on financial hard times during the mid-2000. According to Harkin, he indicated at the hearing that in 2005, three former University of Phoenix executives along with Wall Street investors purchased the failing university. Within four years, their online programs expanded rapidly which resulted in Harkin selecting BPI to serve as a model for the for-profit institutions.

Harkin conducted four previous hearings in efforts of discovering practices of for-profit educational institutions particularly those that offer online programs. However, the former Mount St. Claire University (renamed Ashford University) caught Harkin’s attention due it being purchased by BPI and the distant program enrollment growing from a mere 300 students to over 78,000 in a short time period. Harkin invited Inspector General Kathleen Tighe, U.S. Department of Education; Sylvia Manning, president of Higher Learning Commission; Arlie Willems, retired consultant for Iowa Department of Education; Clark, CEO of BPI; and Jose Cruz, vice president of higher learning policy and practice at The Education Trust, to testify on March 10, 2011, before the HELP Committee. All witnesses participated by written or live testimony except BPI.

Due to Ashford University relying upon over 80 percent of their funding from federal aid which included young veterans educational benefits, Harkin desired to investigate if taxpayers and students are receiving their fair share. During the Full Committee hearing on March 13, 2011, Harkin stated, “The accreditation commission allowed for-profit institutions to operate within their state with simply a business license. A review revealed that 84 percent of students who enrolled in 2008 in Ashford’s two year programs dropped out of the university by 2010 with nothing more than a mound of debt. Ashford spends more money recruiting students than on student instruction. They prey upon disadvantaged students who qualify for a higher amount of federal funds. Over 90 percent of all enrolled students are in their online programs which has helped BPI obtain $216M in profits which are primarily taxpayer’s money. It is a scam.”

Senator Michael Enzi, Republican of Wyoming and ranking member of the HELP Committee, dissented with Harkin’s tactics concerning this issue. Specifically, Enzi stated at the March 10, 2011 hearing that, “He was in disbelief that Harkin’s office sent BPI officials a letter attesting that if no one from their establishment attended the March 10th hearing, it would reflect negatively to the public. There is a process in place to investigate matters such as this which Secretary Duncan is handling. While I don’t condone inappropriate behavior, education is a bipartisan matter and Congress should not be involved. I think this is agenda driven.” Further, Enzi indicated that the tradition of the HELP Committee is being abandoned by the process, the entire story is unknown and there are no viable solutions forthcoming.

Inspector General Tighe of the U.S. Department of Education testified that there were four items that were investigated at Ashford University: student eligibility for federal student aid; federal student aid; return of federal aid program funds; and compliance with the safe harbor regulations. The safe harbor compliance was added during Tighe’s evaluation due to the discovery of an increase in the hiring of enrollment advisors in a short time period. In 2006, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) removed the limitation of no more than 50 percent of the entire student body can be enrolled in a distant program at an educational institution. Tighe testified that this change paved the way for the increased surge in online programs and for-profit institutions nationwide.

Another testifier at the hearing was Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission in Illinois. Her purpose was to shed light to the HELP Committee on the accreditation process and status and/or history of Ashford’s accreditation. Manning stated that, “Accreditation is valuable because it provides access to Title IV federal funds, but their purpose is to provide guidelines for educational institutions in efforts of maintaining quality education.” Prior to Ashford University being purchased by BPI, accreditation was already in place. According to Manning, a simple name change does not prompt the normal accreditation process. In this case, “A campus does still exist and has improved tremendously. If the purchase did not occur, there would be no Ashford University,” said Manning during the HELP Committee hearing.

Retired Consultant Arlie Willems testified at the hearing as a concerned educator for the future of Iowa PK-12 teachers and abroad. Willems stated that, “For-profit institutions are only focused on the bottom line which is profit over quality education. The teacher’s preparatory program that Mount St. Claire University offered has been discontinued by Ashford which is detrimental to the state of Iowa.”

While Jose Cruz of The Education Trust didn’t appear at the hearing, he submitted a written testimony. Cruz stated in his written testimony that, “The Education Trust is a research and advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels.” Cruz claimed that for-profit educational institutions target the “underserved, has high tuition fees, has a low success rate and utilizes a large portion of federal funding.”

A preliminary evaluation of the investigation and claims reflects the various democracy practices within the U.S. at its best. Education was always a requirement and necessity which began with our forefathers and it is the base for every citizen. However, technology advancements and society demands result in policymakers to revisit traditional educational procedures to ensure that alignment still exists and make adjustments accordingly. Distant education has existed for 20+ years, but the global demand of accessibility has become rampant.

In the next edition of The Learning Corner, the stunning results of the BPI case study by Congress will be revealed.

ASPA member Dovie D. Dawson is a Ph.D. candidate, Public Policy and Administration doctoral student at Walden University. Email: [email protected]

Links to videos and documents:

Arlie Thoreson Willems, Ph.D. Administrative Consultant for Practitioner Preparation, Iowa Department of Education (retired). Focus of Discussion: Review of Ashford University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), an online program designed to prepare students for an initial teaching license in Iowa, March 10, 2011.

Full Committee Hearing – Bridgepoint Education, Inc.: A Case Study in For-Profit Education and Oversight.

Statement of Kathleen S. Tighe, Inspector General. U.S. Department of Education Before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, United States Senate, March 10, 2011.

Testimony by Sylvia Manning , President, Higher Learning Commission, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions , March 10, 2011.

Written Testimony of José Cruz, Vice-President for Higher Education Policy and Practice, The Education Trust, March 10, 2011.

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