February 3, 2023

Department of Education Hits Accreditor On Ashford/UAGC Oversight

Department of Education Hits Accreditor On Ashford/UAGC Oversight

In recent years, when given an opportunity to provide brief comments at meetings of the U.S. Department of Education’s outside advisory committee overseeing college accreditors, NACIQI, I have repeatedly argued that the Department, as part of evaluating accreditors, should be taking notice of any schools under a given accreditor that have been exposed for engaging in predatory or illegal conduct, and, if so, seeing whether the accreditor has taken steps to evaluate and, if appropriate, discipline that school or terminate its accreditation.

It’s an argument that has also been made by some NACIQI members, most notably former Department senior official Robert Shireman, but although it seems like common sense, it certainly has not been embraced by all the members.

A coalition of organizations also called on the Department last year (in a letter I also signed) to step up such oversight of accreditors. Accreditors are the gatekeepers for a school’s eligibility for federal student grants and loans, and their oversight is critical to preventing the fleecing of students and taxpayers by schools that engage in deceptive marketing, overcharge for low-quality instruction, and leave former students buried in debt and without the careers they sought.

The reports for NACIQI on each accreditor under review prepared by the Department’s accreditation unit have often been shielded from public view and, when they are revealed, have sometimes seemed to exist in a parallel, trouble-free universe where boxes are checked and enormous controversies regarding predatory and otherwise lawless colleges are simply ignored.

But that may be changing. Some encouraging signs came when the Department in 2021 delayed renewal of approval of a major for-profit school accreditor, ACCSC, citing in particular that agency’s weak oversight of a now-collapsed predatory college chain, CEHE. Then, last August, the Department reversed a Betsy DeVos action and once and for all terminated ACICS, accreditor of many of the worst for-profit schools.

Another positive move came in November when the Department determined that one of the country’s major regional accreditors, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, was out of compliance with numerous federal regulations, and it directed the accreditor to provide more information regarding its oversight of Florida-based Keiser University and about that school’s controversial conversion from for-profit to non-profit status.

Now, a Department public web page with materials for the upcoming NACIQI meeting starting February 28 is getting populated, sooner than in the past, with full staff reports, rather than just summaries, about accreditors up for review, and there’s some more positive news: One of the reports addresses the failure of an accreditor, WASC, to deal adequately with blatant misconduct at one of the schools under its watch, Ashford University, now called University of Arizona Global Campus. The Department’s staff report concludes that WASC “is not in compliance” with Department regulations as to its oversight of UAGC’s recruiting and admissions practices.

The staff reports on two other major regional accreditors, those covering the mid-Atlantic states and New England, don’t have similar discussions of key problem schools under those accreditors. But it’s significant that the mid-Atlantic accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, in November withdrew accreditation from bad actor ASA College, and the New England Commission of Higher Education moved last month to withdraw approval of troubled Bay State College.

Missing from the Department’s website so far is the staff report on midwest accreditor Higher Learning Commission, which has continued to approve predatory schools including American Intercontinental University and Colorado Technical University (both owned by for-profit Perdoceo), and the University of Phoenix.

Here’s what the Department staff report on WASC says regarding Ashford/UAGC:

A recent judgment was made against the parent company of the University of Arizona Global Campus (formerly Ashford University)(Analyst Upload 1). This judgment stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the State of California in 2017 and found issues with recruiting and admissions practices and advertising related to the school, in addition to other areas. While the school has since undergone a change in ownership, it maintains a relationship with Zovio. One third-party commenter stated that Zovio continues to offer recruiting, admissions, and advertising for the school. Two third-party comments discussed Ashford University’s accreditation by WSCUC, citing concerns about the lawsuits brought against Zovio and the performance of the school.

The agency must provide its review documents from this review period for the University of Arizona Global Campus, both under this name and under its prior name of Ashford University. The agency must address its review of this school in relation to recruiting, admissions, and marketing. The documents must include any self-studies, any reports generated as part of a regular or special review of the school, Commission decision letters, and annual reports and mid-cycle review documentation. The documentation should include any other communications relevant to the agency’s accreditation of the school, such as the notifications from the school of pending legal actions and its documentation of its review of the school’s change of ownership. The agency may wish to address the third-party comments in its response to the draft staff analysis….

The agency provided documentation of its review of Ashford University, including its
change of ownership and rebranding of Ashford as University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). The agency noted that Zovio, the organization that had previously owned Ashford and was subject to a judgment by the state of California regarding its recruiting and admissions practices, no longer has a relationship with UAGC.

Although the sale by Zovio had originally required the University of Arizona Global Campus to use Zovio as an Online Program Management (OPM) servicer, including using Zovio to recruit and admit students, that agreement is no longer in effect and Zovio is no longer affiliated with UAGC. However, approximately 75% of Zovio’s employees transitioned to UAGC and continue to work with the school.

The agency quoted from a 2019 site visit report under Exhibit ID 56155 where site visitors stated that current practices and procedures related to recruiting seemed to indicate “integrity” on the part of the school. The agency cited improvements in the school’s retention rates as evidence that the school will improve its graduation rates.

The school’s website currently lists a 9% graduation rate for 2 and 4 year programs within 150% of the degree’s scheduled completion time. The agency noted that the school is under a “Formal Notice of Concern” related to its outcomes.

The agency stated that the judgment by the Superior Court of the State of California against Zovio was related to incidents prior to 2017, the year the action was filed by the state. The agency cited UAGC’s hiring of new staff to oversee recruiting practices and the school’s implementation of a “Secret Shopper” program to identify problems with recruitment as evidence the school is improving its recruitment and admissions practices. However, the agency did not document a review of the results of the school’s secret shopper program. Notably, the school had used a secret shopper program from 2013-2014 in which all calls were deemed to contain false information, according to the 2022 judgment. The school discontinued the use of the secret shopper program at that time. The agency’s narrative also stated that it had not received “any complaints during the review period about marketing and recruiting practices that evidenced a failure of the institution to follow its published procedures and policies.”

It is not clear from this statement whether the agency did receive complaints about the institution’s recruiting and marketing practices.

The agency has demonstrated that it considers and reviews recruitment and admissions practices as part of its process. However, it is concerning to the Department that UAGC continued to have serious issues with its recruitment and admissions practices at least through the agency’s current review period, yet the agency did not identify these problems at the school. The agency’s policies require it to “go into further depth” if there are indications that a school has problems in this area. The documentation provided doesn’t demonstrate whether the agency increased scrutiny of the school in this area in response to the school’s history of concerns related to recruitment and admissions. The agency quoted the school’s self-reported practices for maintaining integrity in this area, such as its secret shopper campaign and hiring of new staff, but it isn’t clear from the documentation provided how the agency verified the school’s statements about its current recruiting and admissions practices.

The agency is not in compliance in this area. The agency must provide additional documentation of its review and evaluation of admissions and recruiting practices at UAGC to demonstrate the application of its recruiting standards and requirements.

[UPDATE 02-24-23 12:30 pm: I had, above, praised the Department for more prompt posting of accreditation documents, and for posting some of the “Final Staff Report” documents, in addition to the more preliminary “Final Staff Analysis” documents. Readers of this website might not be surprised to learn that the “Final Staff Report” documents have now been removed from the Department’s webpage. Fortunately, I downloaded the staff report on WASC, so you can still read it here. Also Middle States and NECHE.

[UPDATE 02-04-23 3:00 pm: The Department has now posted the Final Staff Reports for all accreditors up for review, including Higher Learning Commission here. The Final Staff Analyses are here.]