Regents Spin Room on Univ. of Ariz. Global Campus Continues

February 28, 2024

Phoenix — Last month the Arizona Republic published the results of its investigation into the University of Arizona’s acquisition of for-profit Ashford University in 2020.

The Republic found that officials with the University of Arizona led an unscrupulous public relations campaign to cover up financial and ethical issues related to the acquisition.

Dave Wells, research director of the Grand Canyon Institute (GCI), appeared on Horizon on Thursday, February 22, to discuss the history of what is now known as University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). Prior to its purchase by the University of Arizona, it was known as  Ashford University. In 2005 Bridgepoint Education purchased a privately-owned Catholic college in Iowa and transformed it into a for-profit online entity that was rebranded as Ashford University.

“At one time, Ashford had an enrollment of 80,000 students,” Wells commented. “But they are what we call a predatory institution… They defrauded students by saying you could get a degree and [a related] kind of a job. But the students either dropped out or they got the degree and found out they could not get that job. So, it’s a really problematic institution.”  Ashford lacked proper state approval or accreditation for some degrees to qualify students for professions they had promised would be available.

In fact, the state of California took Ashford to court for defrauding students, and the Biden Administration ultimately forgave $72 million in student loans for these students, which is likely a drop in the bucket of the total amount defrauded from students, since only a small portion of Ashford students reside in California. Ashford, now UAGC, disproportionately enrolls low-income students who are women and students of color and a relatively high percentage of veterans.

The Regents letter cited below claimed, Ashford was “academically challenging based on external reviews and rankings, comparable to the top 10% of four-year colleges in the U.S.” Yet GCI in 2020 and the Republic’s investigation found questionable academic quality. In addition, based on UAGC reporting, only 6% of its faculty are full-time, meaning for every full-time faculty member there are 15 part-timers.

Wells noted, “Only $1 out of every $5 was going to pay the faculty that are teaching the classes and that’s way below the norm.” UAGC’s enrollment has declined by one-third to 23,000 students since its 2020 acquisition by the University of Arizona.

“Originally online degrees were provided by for-profit, predatory institutions which included the University of Phoenix, and some would argue Grand Canyon University,” Wells commented. “Arizona State University was an early public institution to begin offering online degrees and now lots of public institutions are building their online brand. It’s a much more competitive environment and the U of A should have realized that in 2020 because that was why Ashford was not doing so well. I just don’t understand why they could not read the tea leaves better.”

In its 2020 analysis, GCI noted that Ashford had an 8-year graduation rate of under 10% for first-time students (one-fifth of the national average) and an 8-year graduation rate of only 25% for returning students (less than one half the national average). Ashford represented one of the worst performing universities in the United States.

GCI further noted that Ashford’s 5-year default rate on student loans was nearly 50%. By contrast, for Arizona State University, the default rate was 17%.

Regents Spin Room

The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) released a letter dated February 20th that describes the rationale for the 2020 acquisition of this same institution in the following head spinning ways:

UArizona leaders were intrigued by the possibility of acquiring an established all-online institution. Their articulated rationale included the factors set forth below. • Opportunity for national extension of UArizona’s land grant mission of offering expanded educational opportunity and access to diverse groups of students
• Expanded demographic and geographic reach.
• High-quality online platform, with 35,000 students.
• Flexible operations and a lower cost structure, permitting responsive innovation and growth.
• Potential positive revenue generation for UArizona.
• Designated pathways and transfer agreements to propel increased enrollment for UArizona’s  existing primary online initiative, Arizona Online.
• Potential opportunities for online students to move to UArizona’s main campus programs.
• Potential platform for global expansion, complementing UArizona’s international programs and micro-campuses.

Although UArizona conceivably might have targeted other online universities for acquisition, Ashford University presented certain unique advantages, including those set forth below.
• Nearly 90% of Ashford students were over the age of 25.
• A majority of Ashford students were non-white, with 71% female and 25% associated with  the military.
• An innovative award-winning approach to all-online education, offering students one five week course at a time, with 50 academic starts each year (rather than the typical semester or trimester approach).
• Small average class size and low student-to-faculty ratio.
• Highly-rated by students relative to other peers in the online higher education market.
• Academically challenging based on external reviews and rankings, comparable to the top 10% of four-year colleges in the U.S.
• Over 2,300 faculty, over 50% of whom held Ph.D. or other doctoral degrees.


Integration with the University of Arizona

Currently, UAGC students still apply for federal loans and aid through Ashford University, despite the rebrand. The Regents letter details many ways the University of Arizona has tried to deter past fraudulent practices, but it says nothing about improving the portion of full-time faculty, rather than rely on adjunct faculty–or investing more into the educational mission.  Note the final bullet point above makes no mention that almost all of the 2,300 faculty are part-time adjuncts with no benefits.

As Phil Hill, who follows Ed Tech closely, noted, the Regents letter underplays that UAGC temporarily lost access to student funds from the U.S, Department of Veterans Affairs and had been put on warning about loss of Title IV funds (Pell grants and student loans) from the U.S. Department of Education.

The letter goes on to indicate that the University of Arizona is in the process of planning to fully integrate UAGC into their operations. “UArizona leaders are also working to fully integrate UAGC into the UArizona, which would result in UAGC ceasing to be separately accredited but coming under UArizona’s WASCUC accreditation and ceasing to be a separate Title IV institution for federal student aid purposes, including termination of its currently existing OPEID number.”

The letter states the University of Arizona is currently reviewing the UAGC degree programs. “This analysis is intended to determine which UAGC programs add net value and should be continued and incorporated into UArizona, which UAGC programs do not offer sufficient educational value and should be reduced or eliminated.”

Since the University is loath to close UAGC, integration is the best option. Despite the rancor with the University of Arizona faculty senate, this integration must be done in a fully collaborative way with the faculty to assure the integration helps restore the integrity of the University of Arizona and ABOR.

Read the Grand Canyon Institute’s full analysis from 2020 here.

For more information, contact:

Dave Wells, Ph.D., Research Director
602.595.1025, Ext. 2,