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Bridgepoint Stock Tumbles After Ashford University Accreditation Denial

Aired 7/10/12 on KPBS News.

The denial of regional accreditation for Ashford University, a for-profit school owned by Bridgepoint Education sent the San Diego-based parent company's stock prices tumbling Monday.

— Ashford University, a for-profit school, has been denied accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Without accreditation, the school’s students are not eligible for federal aid. The stock price of the San Diego-based parent company, Bridgepoint Education, fell by more than a third after the denial was announced Monday.

In his letter to Ashford officials about the denial, Ralph Wolff, WASC president cited low student retention and inadequate tracking of student completion and learning. It also raised concerns about inadequate academic staffing, high spending on student recruiting and low academic rigor.

According to Wolff's letter, 128,000 students withdrew from Ashford over a five-year period, while 240,000 enrolled over the same time. The school's online programs, which serve about 95,000 students, employ only 50 full-time faculty members.

A statement on the school's website said it plans to both reapply and appeal the denial.

Wolff said Ashford applied for accreditation from his group under an accelerated process. Seven other schools have used the fast-tracked process since WASC began offering it in 2010. Four of those schools were accredited. The accreditation decision was deferred for two and the other was denied, but given a more basic level of authorization.

Accrediting bodies and the federal government have increased their focus on student outcomes in higher education, according to Thomas Bailey, director of the National Center for Postsecondary Research at Columbia University's Teachers College.

“This is a trend that’s affecting everyone," he said. "But it’s most accentuated with the for-profits because of general skepticism about them and the extent to which they’ve been able to use the federal financial aid system for their revenue.”

For-profit colleges and universities have come under increased scrutiny in recent years because they tend to have lower completion rates than nonprofit institutions and their students also tend to default on their loan payments at higher rates.

A spokesperson for Bridgepoint Education said Ashford's students who receive federal financial aid will not be affected by the denial because the school remains accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Centeral Association of Schools and Colleges.

The school was applying for accreditation in California because the HLC has instituted a new policy requiring a substantial presence in the geographic region it oversees. That area includes Iowa, where Ashford University has a campus with 1,115 students, according to the Bridgepoint website.

The online program that accounts for the vast majority of the school's enrollment is administered in San Diego.

Ashford University is one of two schools owned by Bridgepoint Education, which with about 3,000 local employees is one of San Diego County’s largest employers, according to San Diego SourceBook.

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