University of Arizona Acquires For-Profit Ashford University
Updated | Marissa Fuller
UA Acquires For-Profit Institution of Higher Learning, Ashford University
The University of Arizona has acquired for-profit Ashford University, with the aims to develop it into a non-profit that will now be the University of Arizona Global Campus. The Tucson-based university announced the deal as a purchase of $1. In reality, the company that owned Ashford, Zovio, will pay the University of Arizona an upfront payment of $37.5 million, for affiliation and trademark licensing, while the Global Campus will share with Zovio 19.5 percent of a guaranteed $225 million earned in tuition revenue over 15 years. This move comes as UA has been expanding their online presence, and it is not one that everyone is happy about.
Why This Deal is Drawing Criticism
University of Arizona faculty have been harshly critical of this acquisition, fearing the damage to the UA’s reputation as a 135 year old institution with a renown for providing quality education. Adding to the sense of bad feeling is the fact that only some of the faculty were made aware of the decision, and were then made to sign nondisclosure agreements about it.
Predatory Recruitment of Vets
Ashford has famously been accused of and investigated for their predatory behavior towards students, and specifically to veterans. In spite of years of these complaints, headed by a nonprofit veteran advocacy group Veterans Education Success, in February of this year the Department of Veterans Affairs decided to allow Ashford to remain eligible for GI Bill benefits.
Ashford has made tens of millions of dollars in GI Bill funds, and therefore relies heavily on the student population of veterans. When for-profit schools like Ashford offer the courses structured in such a way that vets can work into their schedules—courses lasting only five to six weeks versus a traditional semester structure— vets who want to continue their education are ripe to be taken advantage of. Veterans Education Success aims to disrupt institutions like Ashford from achieving this, by offering legal and policy advocacy, and working to “protect the integrity and promise of the GI Bill.”
Lawsuits & Shaky Accreditation
A lawsuit was raised by California’s attorney general against Ashford in 2017 for using illegal business practices to mislead students, alleging the university’s admission counselors were essentially functioning as salespeople being pushed to meet enrollment targets. They also misrepresented what would be covered by the GI Bill, resulting in hundreds of thousands of wasted GI Bill dollars and some vets being hounded over debt. When faced with a loss of GI Bill funds on account of this lawsuit, Ashford moved its headquarters to Arizona. The constant threat of loss of accreditation has put vets at risk of not being able to transfer credits to another institution, as well as being out whatever amount of their GI Bill spent at Ashford.
So Why Make This Purchase?
The University of Arizona administration leading this transition is not concerned with the past lawsuits of Ashford, as the purchase is by the University of Arizona Global campus as a separate legal entity, so Zovio would retain the liability of those. However, this will not be the case for any future lawsuits, and considering that Zovio will continue to be very involved in the running of the Global Campus online programs, including managing marketing and student recruitment and retention, all of which have been red flags against the institution, more lawsuits seem inevitable.
The Global Campus will also be accredited separately, inheriting Ashford’s accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), instead of the University of Arizona’s Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation.
So, what is really changing in this deal? All told, it looks like the University of Arizona is just looking to absorb the company as a cash cow, and not lend much more than its name in affiliation to the running of things. The best case scenario would be for the newly minted University of Arizona Global Campus to strive to better business practices that match its affiliation with UA. Worst case scenario? The reputation, and thereby worth, of traditional UA degrees going down the drain.
Marissa Fuller is a freelance writer and editor with a degree in Creative Writing and Classical Civilizations from the University of Arizona. She can be found translating Shakespeare into Ancient Greek in the English countryside, where she is currently stationed with her Airman and their faithful hound.