Dear Commons Community,
The University of Arizona announced yesterday that it reached a deal to acquire Ashford University, a for-profit, online institution, for $1.
The acquisition will result in a new nonprofit entity, called University of Arizona Global Campus, to be affiliated with the University of Arizona but to operate independently under its own board of directors and president, who will be nominated by the university. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“The deal will help fulfill Arizona’s land-grant mission by “providing access to a diverse student population,” said Brent White, vice provost for global affairs, and will “expand our reach to a group of students we haven’t reached to date.”
Ashford has 35,000 students, most of them working adults: Eighty-seven percent of its undergraduates are 25 and older, according to federal data. Among Arizona’s 35,000 undergraduates, about the same proportion is 24 and under.
Working conditions for faculty members of the new entity, including tenure, will be determined by the board. “It should be a seamless transition of students and faculty,” White said.
The deal will broaden online academic offerings, said White and Craig Wilson, vice provost for online and distance education. Arizona and Ashford have 140 online degree programs between them, the officials said, but about 15 of them overlap. Ashford’s programs are “very attuned” to work-force development, said Wilson.
Ashford, which is owned by the publicly held company Zovio (formerly Bridgepoint Education), has had a rocky history, of which Arizona’s administrators said they were “certainly aware.” Ashford was the subject of a Chronicle investigation that examined how it had avoided California’s tough regulatory oversight of eligibility for GI Bill money by designating the state of Arizona as its headquarters. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs threatened to cut off Ashford’s GI Bill funding unless it obtained proper approval in California or moved its entire operation to Arizona. When Ashford requested approval from California for GI Bill eligibility, the state rejected the bid.
Ashford’s most recent accreditation, in 2019, by the WASC Senior College and University Commission, came with a “notice of concern,” largely regarding the persistence and completion rates of its students. Absent significant improvements, the accreditor warned that Ashford risked being found out of compliance with standards relating to “core functions of teaching and learning, scholarship and creative activity, and support for student learning and success.” But the commission also lauded the “authentic and enthusiastic commitment” of Ashford “to enacting its mission of serving students from underserved groups.”
Arizona is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Arizona Global Campus will seek accreditation from the WASC commission.
The newly announced deal bears similarities to another recent acquisition of an online for-profit by a large public university: Purdue University’s acquisition in 2017 of Kaplan University to create Purdue University Global.
That deal made a splash but also led to questions about the transparency of the new enterprise. Later, despite projections of a “very substantial revenue stream,” Purdue Global reported considerable losses earlier this year.
Purdue’s experience was “certainly instructive,” said Arizona’s White, who is also dean of global campuses and international education. As part of the acquisition of Ashford, the university has secured a revenue guarantee for Arizona Global Campus: $25 million each year for five years, and $10 million annually for each year thereafter. Zovio will continue to provide education-technology services under a long-term agreement.
Purdue’s announcement of its deal, in 2017, upset some faculty members, who said they hadn’t been consulted about an arrangement that bore directly on Purdue’s academic mission.
Arizona has taken steps to solicit faculty input, said White. Some 200 stakeholders, including 100 faculty members in 50 departments, had been consulted, though they had to sign nondisclosure agreements because the potential acquisition involved a publicly traded company. “We conducted academic due diligence,” White said.
Arizona’s faculty experts in nursing, psychology, business, and general education evaluated Ashford’s curriculum in those programs. Arizona also assessed Ashford’s hiring processes and policies for faculty workload and class assignments.
“There is ample evidence that the degree programs are real, offered at the appropriate level, and providing useful learning for the working student audience,” Jeffrey B. Goldberg, a former Arizona provost who vetted the transaction, said in a statement.
I think this will be a good move for the University of Arizona. Arizona’s administration will need to exercise good quality oversight of its new Global Campus.