Corporate, Domestic, Ethics, Feature, For-Profit, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, Recruitment, Required, Retention Rates, University & College - Written by on Thursday, August 11, 2011 19:28 - 12 Comments

Inside Ashford University: A former staffer talks to WiredAcademic

 

by Foxtongue on Flickr under Creative Commons license

By Paul Glader, Managing Editor of WiredAcademic

A former academic advisor at Clinton, Iowa,-based Ashford University recently spoke candidly with WiredAcademic about her experience working for the large for-profit college. Ashford has around 80,000 students and is owned by Bridgepoint Education Inc. Despite a sliding stock price, Bridgepoint’s market capitalization still tops $1 billion. Just last month, a top investor, Warburg Pincus, signaled intention to sell their 65% stake.

Some of the details in this interview are rather shocking…. We publish them because we believe this industry needs transparency to make progress. We’d like to hear from more students, faculty and staff in the for-profit schools on what’s happening inside these companies. We also welcome a response from officials at Ashford University or Bridgepoint Education Inc. if they would like to respond to this or to give an interview. Email me at Paul@WiredAcademic.com.

WA – Tell us about your background at Ashford? 

AA - I was an academic advisor for Ashford University for just under a year. I started looking for a new job about 1 month in when I realized how unethically the admissions department conducted itself and what a scam the university was… but I’ll get in to that. Before I launch in to it I think it may be helpful to break down the role of an academic advisor. First of all, all academic advising happened exclusively over the phone. This makes sense when you consider that the average advisor had between 500-600 students that they were responsible to make regular contact with. I never met any of the students I was responsible to counsel, saw a picture, or had any kind of tangible contact with them. The closest I heard was some students would “friend” academic advisors via facebook, and on a few occasions I heard of academic advisors checking out student’s houses on google maps. Some of that was harmless curiosity, but some academic advisors used that as a tool to see if students excuses for absences checked out. For example if someone said they couldn’t attend class because a pond flooded on their property our job was to check out if that story was true and google maps was a big help for that sort of detective work.

WA – That’s really interesting about Google maps/Google earth. I didn’t think they updated the photos on Google earth in real time? Or would you guys just look to see, for example, if a pond was nearby the house the student described? 
AA - We were trained to treat all student excuses with extreme skepticism so we were encouraged to check local weather reports, obituaries, and finally google maps to see if there was any real possibility that their story could be true. Looking back, it is just so twisted I can’t believe our management encouraged us to go to these extremes.

WA – How did Ashford help and support students in these programs? How effective was the system?

AA - Beyond retention we were responsible to make a minimum of 100 calls a day to check in with students, make sure university policies (especially regarding attendance) were properly understood, and try to offer a personal touch to an otherwise very impersonal university experience…. Our first contact with a student happened around half way through their first class. Admissions coordinators did not collect commission on a student unless the student completed roughly 80% of their first class. On the day that they had completed the minimum percentage of the class the “responsibility” for that student fell on to the academic advisor. There were a few major flaws with this system. First of all, academic advisors are assessed on their retention rates. If you have students dropping out or not attending their classes it would impact your numbers and ultimately it would impact your chances at raises and promotions within the company. But at the end of the day student retention was based 100% on the admissions coordinators that fed in to your student populations.

WA – Explain more about how your job was affected by admissions coordinators at Ashford? 

AA- I had COUNTLESS situations where an admission coordinator would lie to a student about a major/career path/potential salary that Ashford could offer them and when they realized they had been lied to they would want to drop out on the spot. As a result, that first phone call half way through the first class to the student was a really big deal. Most academic advisors (myself included) would go off the suggested script and ask the students point-blank what promises/expectations had their admissions coordinator given them during early enrollment. If there was any hint of a lie/false promise I would encourage the student to consider withdrawing at that time to have a chance to get the story straight from their admissions coordinator. I saw threatening an admissions counselor’s commission as the only way to make them take responsibility for giving accurate and responsible information to new students.

WA – What was your overall feeling about the transparency of the school with its students? 

AA – I was consistently saddened and overwhelmed by the amount of lies that students were told and how the ignorant, poor, or academically incompetent seemed to be preyed upon by admissions coordinators. There were a lot of lofty promises, but I also saw that there are big portions of the American community that either don’t know what they are signing up for when they are recruited for the school or (this is going to sound harsh) are not smart enough to really qualify for legitimate higher education. For example, I had one student that was about to graduate with her Associates degree and on a routine call to her she asked me when she would start her “masseuseing classes.” At first I thought I misunderstood her until I started to dig a little more and realized she thought she was getting her massage therapy degree online (something both she and her angry husband insisted they had been promised by the admissions coordinator.) There was just so much wrong with this. False promises from the admissions coordinator coupled with a student too dense to see how impossible it would be to learn how to give good massages over the internet. Unfortunately there were a lot of stories like this. Another student I recall had totally lost touch with reality was on welfare, living out of her car, over $30k in debt to the school and insisting that she wanted to continue in her coursework because of the promise of a high salary waiting for her once she graduated. … I couldn’t believe what people were told, and how much of it they were open to believing.

WA – Were the students getting an education on par with your college experience? How did the two compare?

AA – Absolutely not. First of all, every test is open booked when you’re teaching online. Secondly, attendance was measured by the number of “clicks” in a classroom. Attending a class just meant that you had clicked on at least 3 links within the classroom, it did not mean that you participated in the class discussion or that you are engaged in any substantial way with the course content. I also saw that all communication skills were seriously lacking with the majority of our students. This went beyond basic grammar (though that was a serious issue) and there was no way to even check that a student was literate, let alone competent at the written English language, prior to admission.

WA – Some in Washington have criticized for-profit schools for saddling students with debt, for having high drop-out rates and for providing degrees that didn’t provide the kinds of jobs students thought they would. What are your views on these criticisms?

AA – Amen Washington! I 100% agree with this criticism! Ultimately I saw too many examples of students racking up debts with little evidence in their grades that they were getting anything meaningful from their education. Also, I think there was a real confusion about what Washington would offer as far as student loans. Most students seemed genuinely shocked when they realized they would have to repay student loans. I also remember that when Obama took office I also noticed a huge surge in the African American community at the school believing that he would “pay for their education” because of education bills he introduced early in his presidency. Ultimately I did not see any way that people who started this school with debt or in serious poverty would ever be eligible for high paying careers let alone be able to pay for tuition and books.

WA — What was it like to work at Bridgepoint? What was the office culture like? What was management like?

AA – Working at Ashford was like working in one giant frat party. The majority of employees were under 30, single, and ready to mingle. Office hook-ups were regular, and it seemed like they were always holding some sort of sexual harassment in the workplace seminar. Keeping “high energy” was also a big part of the culture, ESPECIALLY for the admissions coordinators who made ~500 phone calls a day. Managers would give their employees candy and energy drinks like red bull and monster and they would have drinking contests or do shots at their desks. There was even an outbreak of people snorting coke in the bathroom just so they would be amped-up enough to make a few more phone calls that day. Since it was such a young company, the management was also young. On a few occasions I had students livid that they couldn’t talk to anyone who actually sounded like a grown up. Overall I think they really tried to promote a culture where employees felt like they worked with a bunch of their closest friends (and internal referrals are one of the biggest ways to get hired there so there were a lot of people who WERE working with their closest friends!) But there was always a weird tension when management had to assert their authority. It always turned in to this “bossy big sister/brother” sort of dynamic. It was weird. One thing that may be worth mentioning is the salary/education link at the school. Admissions coordinators were not required to have a college degree or be working towards a higher degree, however their pay started at $50k and with commission and bonuses could make up to 100k. Academic advisors on the other hand were required to have a college degree and salaries started at 30k. Definitely a hard pill to swallow when your employer… a university no less… doesn’t seem to value higher education in its employees.

WA – Did you have a sense that Bridgepoint and other schools were trying to improve student services? Recruiting techniques? Retention? Financial counseling so students wouldn’t obtain too much debt? What were they doing about these respective issues? E.g. any memos to staff to improve on xyz? Any new initiatives? New executives that tried to improve quality or ethics?

AA – I left Ashford right around the time Washington started talking more about their investigations and U of Phoenix had their major settlement with two former enrollment coordinators who said that management forced them to lie to prospective students. Since I was at the beginning of the drama I’m not sure how much that negative attention has impacted how student services are now run. As things were coming up I did ask my management how they wanted us to handle student questions/concerns but they advised to respond “no comment” across the board. I can tell you that every person I worked with in academic advising has now left because of similar issues I had. If only they invested as much in the retention of their employees as they do for their students.

WA - Do you think there is hope that this industry – for-profit and online colleges – can improve and educate a wider swath of people in the U.S.? Or do you think it’s a model that is impossible to fix? 

WA - I think there would need to be a major amount of reform and excruciating accountability for the for-profit model to ever really work. Personally, I think that for-profit education can’t work.  It was just too tempting for those chasing after higher commissions to remember the needs of the students.  I also saw that in an effort to keep costs low they paid their teachers so little there were issues of teachers walking out of classes and not issuing students final grades or in some cases not teaching entire sections of the curriculum.  I don’t know how to build the credibility of the school and the education received there when the bottom line ultimately drives the choices a school makes.

WA – How did you rate the actual interface students used in the school? The course management software? The content delivery software and teaching methods? What can you tell us about these systems at Ashford? 

AA – Personally, I thought the actual interface was pretty intuitive however it was often subject to system crashes which can be a big problem.  The real issue I saw was that some students would be enrolled in the school without any consistent access to a computer or internet or any computer experience.  If I had a dollar every time I taught a student (over the phone) how to create an email account or use Microsoft word I would be a very rich lady.  There were technology requirements, but oftentimes enrollment coordinators would fudge the system so they could meet their enrollment quotas.  Unfortunately, you can have the best system in the world, but unless you can guarantee that students meet the requirements to access that system and have basic computer skills under their belt it’s a waste of a lot of people’s time and money.
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12 Comments

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Bob H.
Dec 19, 2011 0:10

Mr Glader,
Great article that has proved many things about my experience with Ashford University. I am interested in finding out how I can make my complaints get to the right person. I plan on contacting the Higher Learning Commission and I plan on finding out who the Senator is conducting this investigation.

I am within 4 classes of completing my BA and now they have dropped an elective they gave me credit for 3 years ago. This adds a class to my schedule that I should not have to take. I am in the Air Force (22+ years) and I have a schedule set and planned to finish this degree by a certain date to assist me in being promoted. Now, my plan may be thrown off if they do not correct this wrong. I have been in contact with my AA numerous times explaining how many classes I have left and then all of a sudden this one shows up with no notice. I have a progress report from 30 November 11 that shows I have 47 of 47 credits for my electives completed. Now it shows I have 43 of 47 complete and a class is now scheduled. For three years I had 47 of 47 complete. I am awaiting a response from my AA but still plan on filing a complaint.

Additionally, I have an Airman that worked for me who had an AA tell her he was going to submit her for a decoration because she had referred many people to AU. He even contacted a supervisor of this Airman. This is highly inappropriate and way out of his lane. My commander and I laughed at the thought. Can you assist me in getting my complaints heard by the proper people.

I believe everything this former AA told you. I look forward to hearing from you and hope you can let me know the right people to talk to. I will also be sending this to your e-mail account in hopes it reaches you.

Best regards,
Bob H.

Amy Dodson
Dec 21, 2011 11:19

While many of the accusations that this AA hurled maybe true, as a former student, I can tell you that (personally) my experience with Ashford was very positive. I don’t feel that my Adviser lied to me in any way and everything that we discussed was point on, as far as my needs and expectations for furthering my education. With the exclusion of one course, my Instructors were knowledgeable,instructive, and interactive with the students and my main complaint with that course is that my instructor had a lot of personal emergencies and was unavailable a lot of the time. My classroom was easy to navigate and the work was strenuous. I can definitely see how anyone without determination, focus, and the willingness to put in the effort required to write all the papers, or who is prone to procrastination might fail; but to me, that is on that person, not the school or the instructors. One can only teach those who are receptive, willing, and eager to be taught.

I believe that, as in any large business, you will probably find that “one bad apple” that will spoil the whole bunch; but on the whole, I would bet that there are more good, honest advisers than bad. My advisers were all very excellent. It sounds to me as if the AA who participated in this article was a disgruntled employee. I am in hopes that more people, like myself, who had a positive experience at Ashford will speak up.

I worked hard, attended classes regularly, handed in my work on time, took my tests without consulting my book for the answers, and made certain that I got all that I could out of my education. I have nothing bad to say about Ashford University and am proud to have finished my B.A. in psychology from Ashford.

Sincerely,
Amy P. Dodson

Brett C.
Dec 21, 2011 18:15

You can keep some of the people happy some of the time, but you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time is applicable at Ashford just like anywhere else. I have been attending for the last year and other than some occasional displeasure and inconvenience with the financial aid office, I have been more than pleased with my enrollment and academic advisors as well as the education I am receiving.

Without the encouragement and support of the great instructors I have had and from my academic advisor, I would not have made it this far. I am 53 years old and not a kid by any means and the other students in my age group and I are having a great experience that we are proud of.

Barbara W.
Dec 21, 2011 23:09

WiredAcademic and Bob H. I have to agree with Amy Dodson and Brett C. I finished my BA in Psychology AND Social & Criminal Justice in Oct 2010. Ashford Univ.(AU) Academic Advisors were extremely helpful and attentive towards my needs. I completed my degree while also stationed in three different countries, without any problems. I personally disagree with anyone saying that online education is a joke! There may be a few Online Colleges that fit this description, but in my experience, Ashford was not one of them.

Amy D. is correct, a student gets what a student puts into their education. I worked my bum off, lugging my computer around the world to ensure that I completed my course work in accordance with each classes requirements. During my 3.5 years at AU I have never been late on an assignment, never relied on anyone else to complete my school work, offered any excuses to get out of assignments, nor allowed anyone to plagiarize any work, to include previous papers I wrote. Just like Amy D. stated, “…every big company has its issues”. AU has never steered me wrong and I asked a lot of questions when I did not understand something. My academic professors were hard but fair; some harder than others, however, I survived them as well as maintained a 3.9 GPA. Not so easy when getting two degrees! I also attended the graduation and enjoyed the experience of walking to receive my degree with honors – Summa Cum laude baby!!!!!

I have had the opportunity to complete a year in the college classroom environment at UMUC and found that it required a lot of personal traveling and dealings with immature students, which for me, as an adult and living overseas, was not always palatable. Shame on students who don’t take their education seriously.

The one complaint that I had about AU was the Financial Aide department, however, this issue was resolved by a very good AA who contacted the manager in that division. Problem solved. I would have to say, that if you have a problem keep going up the chain until it is resolved. Persistence and patience is a wonderful tool to possess.

I will close with this – it takes a persistent, focused, and disciplined student to pursue a college degree via the online route. I am very proud to have had my online experience with Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa.

Barbara W. – Class of 2010!

Bob H.
Dec 22, 2011 15:57

@ Barbara…I have a 4.0 through 10 classes with Ashford, currently a 97 in the class I am in now, and only have 3 classes left. I put the work in. My problem is with Ashford is that it has moved away from what made it attractive in the first place. They are no longer the same military friendly school they used to be. They appear to be more interested in sheer numbers more than anything else. I have attended off and on since 2008. When I started I was the only military person in my classes, now, military members are everywhere…which is a great thing. However, I believe AU found out the advantages of seeking out military students (military friendly=$$$$) and they have agressively pursued them to become the 3rd largest school for the military.

When AA’s begin trying to write decorations for an Airman First Class (E-3), or anyone, then a line has been crossed. This is not second hand gossip I am passing around. This situation actually came to me and I shut it down. I pulled the Airman in my office and let them know it would not happen and that it was inappropriate for the individual to even mention a decoration. Anyone remember taking ethics?

Further, I do not have many issues with my AA. I am firm and direct with her and she knows she will not get anything by me. She knows of my unhappiness with the University and we do not communicate much becuase there is no need.

As far as instructors go, you get what you get. I would think that in my 400 level classes I would have professors but that is not always the case. Also, in my current class my instructor cited WIKIPEDIA in the discussion forum. Really? Further, he has terrible grammar and must not use spell check. Where is his credibility when it comes to grading me? He has none. He gave me a 3.74 out of 4.0 on my last discussion board post. When I asked what I did wrong he said he would check and get back with me. 2 weeks later and I have heard nothing. He makes maybe, 2 posts a week that do not contribute to any type of learning. In my last class, the instructor did not post week 2 grades until the day before the class ended (Week 5). She would not answer student posts requesting answers to why there were no grades posted. I contacted “Instructor Issues” and the e-mail I got stated something to the effect of, “I am so-and-so, appointed to assist Instructor so-and-so.” I e-mailed back asking if he was working for me or the instructor I had issues with. His response was terse and basically told me it was the instructor without being overt about it.

These issues are always in my end of course critiques and I tell them to please contact me for more information. There is never a call because they do not truly care. I have 4 classes left so they know I am pretty much going to stick it out. Transferring now would be stupid of me and they know it.

Ashford used to be a great little secret but is now nothing more than a college that got too big, too fast. They don’t know how to handle it and they are losing credibility. They have turned into the University of Phoenix!

Bob H.

A.A.
Jan 27, 2012 16:40

I have one class left at Ashford and they dropped me from the class and withdrew me from Ashford, without my knowledge. I had posted in my new class and they claimed I hadn’t and now they say my financial aid may be in jeopardy. It seems very convenient for them that all of a sudden I can not graduate. Up until this issue, things have be relatively good.

Eric
Feb 15, 2012 14:59

I’ve been at Ashford for about 2.5 years and have about 10 months left to go to finish my degree. I started college in a traditional fashion, got a couple A.A. degrees but then entered the working world. A couple of years ago (well 2.5 to be exact) I decided to change careers and became suddenly aware that I would need a Bachelors degree, at least, to move through the ranks. Fortunately I had a great opportunity to move into my desired career field with the understanding from my new boss that I finish my degree. This, he explained, was for my own good and I can’t thank him enough for that advice.

Ashford has proven to be a great place to attend school for me. I find the coursework challenging and interesting, the instructors to be pretty good and responsive and the other students to be engaging. It allows me the ability to travel for work and pleasure and still keep up with my school work. As a busy 30 something professional I spend 50 hours a week working, have a house that needs constant maintenance and am active in my community. Ashford’s format allows for all of these activities to take place without requiring me to be at a certain place at a specific time.

Of course it’s not Harvard or Berkley, but it is pretty comparable to a State school from an education perspective. Again, I’ve attended both. The academic counselors can be a pain to deal with at times, but I’ve never had an issue go unresolved for too long. I do not use financial aide so I have no experience with that personally. However, I have read some scathing articles (such as this one) about that side of the business. I find it disappointing and hope that the school gets some well deserved government oversight. To me, this would only help to legitimize the school and its academic offerings.

We should make sure to separate the academic experience and the recruitment tactics when we talk about Ashford, and other for-profits. The academics do not seem to get positive (or any) attention while much of the attention is negative and spotlights the recruitment aspects. The distinction can be tough to identify, but there definitely is one. Hopefully the department of education will force for-profits to have better corporate manners and allow for the academic programs to get more of that spotlight.

JB
Feb 19, 2012 16:33

I have been attending AU online for about 2.5 years and have had nothing but a positive experience. I do not go through the financial aid so I can’t speak about that, but always have been helped by my advisor if there was an issue within a 24 hour period. I can see where the former AA is getting at with it being a young company with younger workers. The lack of education required for staffers would sound disappointing, but at the coordinator level would not be needed. Any AA or staffer I ever dealt with was completely professional and helpful.
I take pride in all of the papers, tests, course work, and discussion post I do weekly online. All papers are graded by an assistant to the course professor and done in APA 6th edition format. There are new requirements for attendance and you can no longer just click away at a few links. To fulfill attendance requirements you must post a topic, post a discussion, conduct research, submit a paper, or do some legitimate course work.
AU is definitely not Harvard or any other top University in the country like another poster replied, but is a good education that serves a purpose for many people who find it difficult to attend college classes in the evening due to a busy schedule.

GO SAINTS!

Savannah
Feb 28, 2012 2:45

Ashford is laughable and money hungry.. I have attended ashford for three classes now let me tell you two of the classes are not transferable. They never required me to send in my transcripts first off. Then I wouldn’t sign the loan paper ,because I had a grant and my the rest would be covered by fasfa. They then made me sign the loan paper and said I could cancel the loans before they would be charged to me just to get me started. I have had financial and student advisors not return my calls or emails for over weeks repeatedly. Apparently I owe 4,800 in loans now for three classes. My books were covered since I’m military. My grant which was approved for these classes said it was used also, so 3,000 from them just disapeared. They refuse to answer me where this money has gone or give me any receipts or answer emails. The last time my student advisor wrote me she was upset that I needed forms to stop any future loans.. rediculous I am going to Jag this week and going to get this school blacklisted for scam to help any future military personnel.

Jason H.
Mar 2, 2012 7:39

Ok, I attended Ashford for a year and while there are some things in the article I can agree with, my experience at Ashford was not a bad one. I didn’t complete my degree at Ashford simply because the format was not for me… I prefer some personal interaction over all online, 5 week courses. But that being said, I don’t feel like I was lied to or misled in any way upon enrolling.

Although the former adviser in the article does make a valid point about how they can be predatory with their recruitement of students, I believe people have to accountable for their choices as well. The example used regarding the young lady that was upset because she thought she was getting a massage therapy degree… you mean to tell me she nearly completed an associates program and had no idea what she was getting her degree in? How do you do that??? I don’t care what the advisor tries to sell you, you have to do your own research, at very least about the degree your attempting to pursue.

Again, some valid points made, but also some wild accusations. As a previous poster stated, you make of it what you will. Online education is not for everyone, but if you do your research prior to enrolling, you’ll know what to expect. Its the same as if you go to the dealership to purchase a new vehicle, the salesman’s job is to sell you the vehicle, its YOUR job to do the work to ensure that what he says matches reality… meaning make sure your getting the best value, get Carfax reports, etc. The same goes with one of the largest investments many of us make, a collegiate education. No matter what dreams the academic advisor is selling, do your research on the school, the cost, compare other options. And even with the degree you pursue, do your research beforehand to make sure the career you choose is right for you. No degree guarantees a job… to get your return investment with a college education, you have to make yourself marketable to employers. A degree is a piece that can help you get a better job, but its how you present yourself, your skills, and your experience that for the most part seal the deal.

Lynn
Mar 2, 2012 18:47

I have been a student at Ashford since October 2008. I have completed my BA, and am 4 classes from finishing my Masters. I have not had any issues at all with Ashford. I do know that their recruiters are a bit pushy, but that is true of almost anyone who works in sales and makes their living off of commissions.

I do have to wonder about the two students the advisor speaks of. How do you almost complete your AA and not know what your degree will be in? Also, if a student has “lost touch with reality” how have they accumulated 30,000 in debt? That would mean they are in their third year of school. I have a hard time believing that someone living in their car is able to have internet access necessary to complete 3 years of school. The whole story sounds embellished.

The attendance issue was changed in July of 2011, interesting that this story was written in August, 2011, but the “advisor ” did not know about the change in attendance, which requires more than “clicking on three links” to be considered “present” in class. A student must either post a discussion, take a test, post a final paper, or post a response to a classmate in order to have their attendance count for that day.

To have a balanced story, the author should have tried to interview a real employee from the school, or perhaps students who attend. Protecting the identity of the “advisor” and allowing them to make such accusations really amounts to sour grapes, and becomes meaningless.

Raven
Mar 13, 2012 19:18

I am a Senior with Ashford University. I have been in attendance since 2008. I have never heard of such a thing. I have had issues with too many classes being schedued at one time, or my financial aid coming in late. But, they took responsibility for it. I have learned a lot at the convience of myself. I had the choice of choosing Pheonix, Liberty, Waden, etc…, I decided to go with what was best for myself.

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