Buying Legitimacy: How A Group Of California Executives Built An Online College Empire
Huffington Post March 10, 2011
by Chris Kirkham
CLINTON, Iowa — Inside the red brick campus of Ashford University, perched on a bluff above the Mississippi River, the door marked “President’s Office” remains perpetually shut. Telephone calls to the university’s head are swiftly transferred to a corporate office some 2,000 miles away, in San Diego.
A new, 500-seat football stadium adorns the campus, and is featured prominently in Ashford’s promotional literature, though the university has no football team. Signs around campus proudly read “Founded 1918” and “90 Years Strong,” despite the fact that Ashford — one of the nation’s fastest-growing for-profit colleges — has existed for less than a decade.
The perplexing campus landscape here in Iowa amounts to an elaborate stage set for a lucrative, online education empire that uses these trappings to sell itself to students as a traditional college experience. That strategy was the brainchild of the corporation behind Ashford: Bridgepoint Education Inc., a publicly traded venture started by a group of former executives from the University of Phoenix, a name now synonymous with for-profit higher education and the controversial marketing practices that have brought the industry crosswise with federal regulators.
Six years ago, Bridgepoint purchased what was then called Franciscan University of the Prairies, a near-bankrupt, 300-student college that for decades had been run by a local order of Franciscan nuns. The school delivered a crucial commodity: legal accreditation. That enabled Ashford’s students to tap federal financial aid dollars, the source of nearly 85 percent of the university’s revenues — more than $600 million in the last academic year. Ashford now counts nearly 76,000 students, 99 percent of whom take classes online.
Link to the full story, including video tours of the campus less than 1% of the student body ever see in person.