Last Thursday, Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate’s education committee, held another hearing on the activities of for-profit colleges. The committee looked at the role of accrediting agencies, specifically the agency responsible for accrediting Ashford University.

In 2005, Bridgepoint, a for-profit company, bought a struggling Catholic college in Harkin’s home state of Iowa. Changing its name from the Franciscan University of the Prairies to Ashford University, Bridgepoint transformed it from a traditional brick-and-mortar school with 300 students to a behemoth with 78,000 students — 99 percent of them online.

Ashford has come under investigation for failing to return $1 million in federal money for students who dropped out and for allegedly paying incentives to its recruiters, which is against federal law. Harkin cited those problems, as well as the school’s high dropout rate (65 percent), low spending on instruction ($700 per student, versus $2,714 per student spent on recruiting) and high executive pay (Bridgepoint’s CEO, Andrew Clark, made $20.5 million in 2009).

In the absence of a representative from the school, the spotlight was on Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredited Ashford. She admitted her agency was “behind the curve” in this case, but insisted that a similar trajectory would not be possible under tightened guidelines.

A puzzling absence

Bridgepoint did not send a representative to the hearing, citing its need to preserve its due process rights and the ongoing investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Education. Trace Urdan, who follows for-profit education for Signal Hill Capital Group, says a rep could have provided context for the issues. For instance, if you exclude people who don’t even complete one class, the dropout rate is only 40 percent, he says.

Follow Judy Weightman on Twitter at @JudyWEdu.

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