Altius Education Changes Course After Accreditation Battles

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start a school from scratch, try to recruit students, and slowly build up a record that will allow them to win accreditation. “That takes five to 10 years, your degrees aren’t worth anything in the meantime, and you don’t have access to subsidies” like federal financial aid, Freedman says. “The last tier-one research university to be accredited from scratch was Rice, back in 1913, which tells you how frequently this model works.”

The second option is to acquire an already-accredited university. “You simply buy the accreditation, like a liquor license,” Freedman says. But that model, too, is full of hazards. It’s been tried by institutions like Blair, NE-based Dana College, a financially troubled school that proposed in 2010 to sell itself to a group of private investors who wanted to build a large study-abroad program. The Higher Learning Commission forbade the sale, and Dana, like Ivy Bridge, had to close its doors.

The third route—“what we thought was a more genuine and elegant way of bridging the gap,” in Freedman’s words—is to partner with an established school. “You go through the well-oiled accreditation pathway, work with the university to create an online branch campus, and ultimately, when you’ve demonstrated competency, you’re ready to be independently accredited.”

That was always the plan for Ivy Bridge. The school was set up as a joint venture between Altius and Tiffin, with the university taking a 20 percent share of ownership, revenue, and potential profits. The company’s main focus was on growing Ivy Bridge, which had reached 3,000 students by mid-2013. But the hope was that it would eventually be able to spin out the program in the form of a new Altius-controlled school called Altius University.

In fact, in 2011, Altius approached the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the Higher Learning Commission’s sister accrediting organizations, about beginning the reviews that would be needed to get Ivy Bridge accredited independently. (WASC oversees accreditation for schools in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific territories.)

But that’s roughly when Tiffin’s woes with the Higher Learning Commission began. Private takeovers of non-profit colleges and universities had become a political issue, and the commission had come under fire from Congress for granting accreditation to Ashford University, an Iowa school that had been purchased by San Diego-based Bridgepoint Education and transformed into an online university with 75,000 students. In March 2011 Senate hearings led by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, lawmakers said high dropout and loan default rates at Ashford and other Bridgepoint-owned schools should have triggered reviews by the commission.

Sylvia Manning told Harkin that the commission was already busy revising its rules on how to accredit for-profit schools, as well as non-profit schools outsourcing parts of their operations to private companies. In 2010, for example, the commission told schools they’d have to get its permission before selling or transferring their assets. It also reserved the right to approve or disapprove any contract outsourcing more than 25 percent of a school’s educational programs to an unaccredited entity.

Both rules were implemented after the commission renewed Tiffin’s accreditation. But as it turned out, Ivy Bridge wasn’t grandfathered in. The documents released by Altius show that Manning, Tiffin president Paul Marion, and staff at both organizations spent much of 2011 and early 2012 debating whether … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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