June 2, 2021

Zovio Adds Board Members As Deceptions At Arizona Global Campus Persist

Zovio Adds Board Members As Deceptions At Arizona Global Campus Persist


Zovio Adds Board Members As Deceptions At Arizona Global Campus Persist

Zovio, the long-time corporate operator of for-profit, online Ashford University, which has repeatedly faced law enforcement actions for deceiving and abusing low-income students, has added two members to its board of directors: John S. Wilson, the former president of Morehouse College, and Ron Huberman, the ex-superintendent of Chicago’s public schools.

Zovio recently made a disturbing deal to run Ashford in partnership with the public University of Arizona and rebrand it as “University of Arizona Global Campus.” But according to a current Zovio admissions representative who spoke extensively with Republic Report, and other evidence, predatory practices at the school are ongoing, despite the change of name and ownership.

Zovio’s new board members

Zovio announced that Wilson and Huberman had joined its board in a March 30 press release.

Wilson worked in the Obama administration as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, after which, in 2013, he became the 11th president of Atlanta-based HBCU Morehouse. In 2017, Morehouse’s trustees decided not to renew Wilson’s four-year term as president. Wilson is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School and was a “senior adviser and strategist” to Harvard University’s president.

Huberman, a former police officer who later served as executive director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, is now the CEO of Benchmark Analytics, which provides software for law enforcement agencies. 

Zovio’s troubling record of abuses

In sharp contrast to Wilson’s and Huberman’s strong records of achievement, Zovio and Ashford University have a long history of misleading students into enrolling in high-priced, poor-quality programs that leave many with overwhelming debt and without the career advancement they sought. After conducting a hearing on the school in 2011, then-Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) declared Ashford “a scam, an absolute scam.” 

Ashford’s enrollment ballooned in the first decade of this century after Zovio, then called Bridgepoint Education, bought a tiny religious college in Iowa, grabbing its accreditation, and created an online behemoth, with 78,000 students by 2012. Enrollment had dropped substantially by 2019, but it still stood at 32,000. For 2018-19, Ashford had $423 million in revenue, 78 percent of that from taxpayer-funded student grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Education alone.

Ashford University’s abusive practices — directed at a student population heavy with people of color, single moms, veterans, immigrants, and others struggling to build better lives — have repeatedly gotten the school in trouble with federal and state law enforcement agencies.

In 2014, Bridgepoint agreed to pay $7.25 million to settle claims by Iowa’s Attorney General that Ashford violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act. California’s attorney general has sued Zovio, alleging unfair and fraudulent business practices at Ashford; the case is set to go to trial this October. In 2016, Bridgepoint entered into a consent order with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in which that agency found that Ashford “engaged in deceptive acts and practices” and ordered the company to discharge all outstanding private loans the institution made to its students and to refund loan payments totaling $23.5 million and pay an $8 million civil penalty. 

Faced with these threats to its reputation, it’s easy to see why Zovio would want to add distinguished leaders to its board. It’s harder to understand why it would be worth it to such leaders to sign on.

John Wilson and Ron Huberman will each receive $50,000 cash annually for their board service, plus significant stock benefits. 

Zovio’s deal with the University of Arizona

Zovio, which changed its name from Bridgepoint in 2019, has now also changed the name of its school and modified its legal structure, part of an industry trend to convert for-profit schools to non-profit organizations and evade the extra regulations and the stigma that bad-behaving schools like Ashford had earned.

Last year, Zovio reached the troubling deal to sell Ashford to Arizona’s flagship public university, the University of Arizona, and rebrand it with the U of A name. Under the deal, Zovio continues to be paid for at least 15 years to operate many aspects of the school.

The Department of Education still needs to give final approval to the Arizona deal, but Ashford is already operating publicly as Arizona Global Campus.

A current Zovio recruiter points to abuses

A current Zovio admissions recruiter, who did not want their name published out of career concerns, told me recently that deceptive and abusive practices continue at the school.

According to the Zovio recruiter, the school’s admissions supervisors instruct recruiters to use the name “University of Arizona Global Campus” or similar name at least one time on a call with a prospective student, but after that they feel free to refer to the school as the “University of Arizona,” suggesting they are offering spots at the main campus, even though the Zovio school has completely different programs and completely different faculty. “A lot of students,” the recruiter says, “think they are going to U of A.” Instead of correcting this misimpression, the Zovio recruiters “move on as quickly as possible.” 

If asked, recruiters are supposed to acknowledge, however, that Arizona Global Campus is not the same as the University of Arizona but has a “partnership” with the state school and is a “separate non-profit.” But that statement would also be improper, because under its temporary operating agreement with the Department of Education, pending final approval of the conversion of the school, Arizona Global Campus is required to “refrain from identifying University of Arizona Global Campus … as a ‘nonprofit institution’ in any advertising, publications, or other notifications” because “Use of the term ‘nonprofit’ may be potentially confusing to students and the public….” 

The deceptions by Zovio extend well beyond mischaracterizing the school’s legal structure, according to the Ashford recruiter. If prospective students ask about the tuition and costs, some Zovio recruiters respond that the school’s price is “below the market average” and mention that classes cost $510 per credit (each class is three credits), rather than volunteering a complete breakdown of costs. The recruiters often don’t tell the prospects about additional e-book and technology fees that increase the charges.

Ashford supervisors don’t tell their staffs to lie to students, but, according to the recruiter, they tell them, to “keep it basic,” even if basic is misleading.

Many admissions representatives, according to this employee, are effectively required to make 100 phone calls a day to prospects. Many students who are called have previously requested that Zovio stop calling them. 

Ashford may now be called University of Arizona Global Campus, but it still shows up regularly if you search for college recommendations on misleading lead generation websites, sites that claim to offer college advice but include search tools that direct prospective students to whatever schools pay for the listing — usually for-profit colleges. 

Other leads into the Zovio call center, according to the recruiter, come from Arizona Global Campus ads running on social media sites including TikTok.

Still others among the prospects contacted by Zovio/Ashford/Arizona Global Campus recruiters say they provided their phone numbers because they thought they were applying for jobs — suggesting the school may still be using lead generators that engage in a common, and illegal, bait-and-switch scam.

Arizona Global Campus students are supposed to have computers to effectively learn from the online programs, but recruiters for the school routinely tell prospects without computers that they can enroll with only a mobile phone. 

Recruiters also are instructed to ask prospects on the phone for the names and numbers of other people they can call to try to enroll. And some enrolled students are offered a possible account credit if they refer new people who sign up.

If a prospective student has no previous or recent higher education experience, Zovio has had a standard practice, apparently to please its accrediting agency, that a student complete an 11-day “mini-orientation,” or “mock classroom,” before starting actual classes. But the recruiter I spoke with says their supervisor encouraged staff to work with students to stretch any interaction, such as a single day they were enrolled at a beauty school or community college, into relevant experience, so students can bypass the orientation and enroll right away, and the school can receive their financial disbursements almost immediately. 

If the U.S. Department of Education “knew what was going on” at Arizona Global Campus, this recruiter told me, “they would shut it down.” 

Other evidence of trouble at Zovio and Arizona Global Campus

The recruiter we spoke with is far from the only source about bad practices and poor performance at the school. 

Navy veteran Eric Dean quit working as an Ashford recruiter in 2017, and two years ago told NBC News that he had been “pressured into essentially selling my soul to throw fellow veterans under the bus” by deceiving them about the school’s graduation and job placement rates.

Dean told NBC that, with veterans and their GI Bill benefits a lucrative target, his bosses pushed him to reach monthly quotas and sign up new students “no matter what.” Dean said recruiters aimed to keep students enrolled for three weeks until they were no longer eligible for a refund. “It was all unethical, the way we were misleading students, he concluded. (Speaking with NBC, Ashford rejected Dean’s allegations.)

According to U.S. Department of Education data, only 25 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students return to Ashford University after their first year (compared with 82 percent at the University of Arizona), and only 25 percent of Ashford students graduate within eight years. So the vast majority of students lured by Ashford’s deceptive pitches leave without a degree, but can nevertheless incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

The advocacy group Veterans Education Success has received more than 100 complaints from Ashford students, with concerns covering recruiting, the quality of education, tuition costs, transferability of credits, and job placement. 

In March, Andrew Clark, Zovio’s founder and CEO for eighteen years, made an abrupt departure from the company, leaving barely a week after the company announced his resignation. Clark got a $3.1 million severance payment; as CEO he received compensation of as much as $20.5 million in a single year (2009). 

Last month, Zovio reported to Wall Street that its enrollments and revenues are down under the new Arizona Global Campus name. Company executives claimed the problem was that “building a new brand… has presented its own unique challenges.” They said that revenues would rebound. But at this point, according to the recruiter I spoke with, Zovio is laying off staff and sharply restricting overtime. (Zovio’s latest quarterly filing with the SEC confirms that the company has laid off about 65 staff.)

Zovio did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did either of its new board members, John Wilson and Ron Huberman.

UPDATE 10/25/21:

By letter dated July 30, 2021, UAGC’s accreditor, WASC, asked the school for extensive reporting on issues including retention and completion.

Meanwhile, the California attomey general’s lawsuit against Ashford/Zovio (complaint here) is set to start trial on November 4 in San Diego Superior Court, to be tried before a judge (not a jury), with witness testimony likely to begin on November 8.