“We’re going to encourage more colleges to innovate, try new things, do things that can provide a great education without breaking the bank,” President Obama told college students in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “For example, a number of colleges across the country are using online education to save time and money for their students.”
That same day, Altius Education, an innovator in online education, learned it is under federal investigation, reports Matthew Zeitlin on BuzzFeed. The Justice Department “did not respond to an inquiry about the details of the investigation.”
The notice was the culmination of a more than two-year battle between Altius and the Higher Learning Commission, one of two members of the 118-year-old North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which controls accreditation — the vital credential that gives college degrees value — for over 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states. The HLC’s university backers have an obvious interest in avoiding the sort of low-cost competition that reformers, and now the president, seek.
“It struck me as highly ironic and deeply frustrating that we were trying to do exactly what Obama describes what the market needs and yet we’re getting resistance from his administration,” said Paul Freedman, who started Altius in 2004.
Altius partnered with Tiffin University, a small private college in Ohio to create Ivy Bridge College, which offered Tiffin associate degrees to online students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. Tiffin controlled the academics, while Altius handled marketing, technology and student services such as “personal success coaches.”
Students paid just below $10,000 a year, on average, much of it covered by federal student loans. About two-thirds transferred to two- or four-year institutions, the program’s goal.
In 2012, Ivy Bridge won a Next Generations Learning Challenges funded by the Gates Foundation.
In a 2010 accreditation review, the HLC said Ivy Bridge furthered the university’s mission and was “an excellent strategic initiative” that “addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum . . . and a very good online portal for program delivery.”
All that changed in late 2011. Tiffin told HLC that Ivy Bridge planned to apply for independent accreditation and become Altius University. The commission and its president, Sylvia Manning, saw “another for-profit university gaming the system,” writes Zeitlin.
Manning had launched a crusade against what she viewed as suspect partnerships between traditional universities and for-profit upstarts, and instituted new rules in 2010 to require further HLC approval of agreements between accredited schools and for-profit companies that substantially changed the nature of the school.
In a report obtained by BuzzFeed, the HLC took steps toward shutting down the experimental arrangement precisely because “student body, faculty and educational programs are not like the structures” on the campus of the brick-and-mortar university that was its partner. This difference was the entire point of Ivy Bridge, and is at the heart of Obama’s proposals.
HLC complained that Ivy Bridge had a one-year retention rate of 25 percent, “notably poor even for 2-year students.”
Ivy Bridge’s five-year graduation rate is 31 percent, compared to 18.3 percent for Ohio community colleges,according to Altius and Tiffin. The graduation-and-transfer rate — transfer is the goal for most students — is 64.1 percent, compared with 42.1 percent at community colleges.
Here’s the Ivy Bridge timeline of events.