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After visit, accreditor keeps UA Global Campus on notice

An office building in Chandler houses the University of Arizona Global Campus, a nonprofit online school formerly known as for-profit Ashford University.

The online university the University of Arizona bought and now plans to absorb doesn’t have high enough retention and graduation rates to please its accreditor.

For that and other reasons, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, which accredits the University of Arizona Global Campus and visited the school’s Chandler headquarters in December, sent a letter last week to Paul Pastorek, the school’s CEO and president, notifying him that it will remain accredited with a notice of concern.

Ashford University (the database doesn’t have an entry for UA Global Campus, which was formerly known as Ashford) reported that 22% of students graduate within eight years and 25% of first-time, full-time undergraduates return to the school after their first year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which was updated as recently as Monday.

“While there continues to be a large gap between the retention and completion rates of UAGC’s students compared to its peer group, the team thought that many of the new initiatives to improve these outcomes were promising,” the commission’s report from its December visit said.

But, the report noted that because those changes are so new, “there has clearly not been enough time and data to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs and initiatives,” and that they “remain aspirational.” As such, the report continued, “UAGC will need to demonstrate that they have made an impact once results are available and can be analyzed and reported.”

Of the 214 total schools the commission accredits, UA Global Campus is one of 12 schools with a notice of concern. But the school’s leadership is confident it’s moving in the right direction.

“In general, we were pleased with the outcome of the report,” Pastorek said in an email to the Arizona Daily Star. “There is nothing new, and we have been working on most of these matters even before the acquisition of Ashford University in December 2020.”

The school has until 2023 to improve its retention and graduation rates, as well as address other issues outlined in the letter, which include:

  • Launch the website that differentiates University of Arizona Online, University of Arizona, and UAGC as swiftly as possible. Critics of UA Global Campus have said its logo is so similar to the UA’s that it could lead to confusion for students. The new website is set to go live on March 18, Pastorek said.
  • Continue to revise and improve marketing, application and enrollment processes that contribute to students’ understanding of their obligations before enrollment (e.g., financial aid, transfer credits and length/cost of program).
  • Continue to assess and continuously revise the plan to mitigate risks associated with the contracted relationship with Zovio, which the school contracts with for education technology services.

The commission is set to conduct another site visit in Spring 2023, which is when it will again assess how well UA Global Campus has addressed these latest directives. 

UA liable for outcomes

Despite the notice of concern, UA Global Campus, which has about 28,000 students, remains accredited and eligible to collect Title IV funds, which include federal grants and loans the majority of students use to pay for an education there. But, if after its next visit, the accreditor is not satisfied with UA Global Campus’ performance, the school could face sanctions, which would put it one step closer to losing its accreditation altogether. Loss of accreditation makes a school ineligible to collect Title IV funds.

Whatever happens in that timeframe is now also the concern of the UA.

In 2020, Arizona’s public flagship university acquired the assets of Ashford, which was a for-profit online college with a reputation for using aggressive recruitment tactics to deceive students about the cost and quality of an education there. The UA rebranded it as the non-profit UA Global Campus, and the two were to remain separate entities, accredited by two different agencies and governed by two different boards.

Then, in January, the UA announced plans to fully absorb UA Global Campus, after the federal education department threatened to pull the online school’s ability to collect Title IV funds. The UA and the UA Foundation now provide the financial backing for UA Global Campus’ Title IV eligibility, which makes the UA liable for UA Global Campus’ performance.

Academic performance was a known issue for Ashford at the time the UA became involved.

In 2019, the accrediting commission put Ashford on notice because it had “strong concerns that the targets set for academic improvement are seriously inadequate to reach levels of student outcomes that should be expected at an accredited institution.”

The commission reissued the notice last summer, after the UA acquired Ashford’s assets. In its updated letter to UA Global Campus, it also asked for information about the school’s current financial condition, its implementation of an independent monitoring and marketing audit plan, and its contractual relationship with Zovio.

Increased oversight of Zovio

UA Global Campus has a 15-year contract with Zovio, which was Ashford’s parent company. Both Zovio and Ashford have faced lawsuits in multiple states. Earlier this month, a California judge ordered Zovio to pay $22 million in restitution at the conclusion of a bench trial initiated by a lawsuit the state filed in 2017. Although at least one witness accused UA Global Campus of operating as “the same institution under a different name,” the judge declined to issue an injunction against Zovio, noting there wasn’t “sufficient evidence of ongoing misconduct” after 2017.

Zovio is now UA Global Campus’ online program management provider, which means it provides enrollment management and academic support services. Under the current contract, Zovio collects 19.5% of the school’s tuition revenue.

Critics of the Ashford acquisition in 2020 and the recent announcement of the integration of UA Global into the UA have pointed to the online school’s relationship with Zovio as a chief concern.

After investigating UA Global Campus in December, the accreditation team said it “recognized that UAGC had made significant progress in increasing oversight and requiring changes to Zovio’s marketing, enrollment and student advising practices to limit risk and increase transparency of information to students.”

However, the team also noted that “students may still not be provided with comprehensive information to have enough time to comprehend their financial obligations when enrolling at UAGC.” It recommended that UA Global Campus continue to “make improvements as needed to ensure that students are given accurate information and enough time to make their decisions.”

As of Tuesday, Pastorek said, “All options with Zovio to improve student outcomes are being evaluated.”

‘Student-centered turn’

According to the commission’s report from its site visit, UA Global Campus’ student body is “composed principally of non-traditional students who work part or full time while pursuing their education.” Nearly 10% are first-time college students, 85% are older than 25, 70% are female, 60% are students of color, and 25% are military-affiliated.

Just over 70% of those students are receiving federal student loans, and the median total debt for undergraduates who complete a degree is $31,802. Another big concern critics and the commission have had about UA Global Campus and its previous iteration, Ashford, is that it didn’t make students fully aware of the costs of attendance.

Last July, UA Global Campus implemented a policy change that requires prospective students who plan to use federal financial aid to pay for school to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid before starting classes. According to the commission’s report, that prevented 26 students from premature enrollment and raised the percentage of students who had all financial aid documents on file to 94% — up 10% from the previous year.

The online school’s new efforts to make students more aware of their financial obligations, the commission wrote in its report, “is illustrative of the student-centered turn taking place in the institution.”

UA Global Campus also told the commission that it’s considering evaluating student transcripts before they enroll in a program “so they are fully informed about remaining course requirements necessary to complete their program.” Further, the school is thinking about reducing the number of program start times from 50 to 10 to 20 a year to give prospective students more time to get oriented to the school and to assess how much commitment it will take for them to complete their degree.

The commission encouraged those moves, but suggested “there might be more direct steps, like compulsory orientation to financial aid, academic planning and other student support activities that would assure students use the time between admission and enrollment in the way that UAGC envisions to prepare students for success.”

UA Global Campus still has about a year to show the commission that its practices have improved to the point that it no longer needs a notice of concern on its accreditation status.

In the meantime, the UA has formed a steering committee composed of members from both schools and is moving forward with refining the details of what integrating the online school into its operation will look like. Administrators have previously said that could potentially include streamlining accreditors and bringing UA Global Campus under the purview of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the UA.

Regardless, as the whole integration process continues to take shape, Pastorek said he is not particularly concerned about UA Global Campus’ current accreditation status.

“The notice, which is not a sanction of the university, is well understood by UA and existed for two years,” he said. “It was believed then, and we continue to believe, that with the changes we have already adopted and scrutiny we continue to apply, we will rectify this matter regardless of the accreditation agency, because we remain focused on doing the right thing for students.”

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at kpalmer@tucson.com or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.


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Higher education reporter

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at kpalmer@tucson.com or at her new phone number, 520-496-9010.

Related to this story

For Star subscribers: A year-and-a-half after the University of Arizona acquired the assets of troubled for-profit online Ashford University and rebranded it as the nonprofit UA Global Campus, the university announced plans to fully integrate the online school into its operation.

For Star subscribers: A sudden lapse in the University of Arizona-affiliated online school's ability to collect G.I. Bill benefits is the latest strike against UA Global Campus, which is run by a company in financial trouble. And now, advocates want the U.S. Education Department to cut off the school's federal financial aid. 

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