Sleazy for-profit educator of the day, Bridgepoint edition

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2011
Chris Kirkham has a fantastic story at HuffPo today about Ashford University, a small college in Iowa which was acquired for its accreditation in 2005 and is now the face of the billion-dollar for-profit education company Bridgepoint Education.

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Chris Kirkham has a fantastic story at HuffPo today about Ashford University, a small college in Iowa which was acquired for its accreditation in 2005 and is now the face of the billion-dollar for-profit education company Bridgepoint Education.

I’m reminded a bit of how Chris Flowers is buying banks for their national banking charter, except for that the situation with Bridgepoint is sleazier than anything Flowers could ever dream of doing.

The goal, employees say, is getting “starts”: students who fill out the paperwork for student loans and make it through at least four weeks of their first five-week course. That is the point at which the university is able to keep the student’s federal aid money, regardless of whether they continue their studies. After that, according to the Ashford employees, any form of counseling drastically drops off.

“There were numerous times when I enrolled students and thought, ‘All I’ve got to do is babysit them for four weeks,’” said a former leader in the admissions department, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he is still employed at another for-profit university. “I’d be thinking, ‘Come on, this person is clearly not ready to go to school.’ But I’d call you, pump you up, keep you confident for four weeks, and once I knew you completed, you were forgotten. It’s easy when I’m counting the money.” …

According to the Ashford employees, the pressure drives recruiters to enroll students who they know have little chance of success: people who openly say they have no regular access to a computer or the Internet, despite the exclusively online course offerings, and even those who acknowledge they have difficulty reading.

Bridgepoint has among the highest withdrawal rates of any publicly traded school in the industry, according to a Senate report last year. Based on a pool of students examined between 2008 and 2009, more than 80 percent of those in an associate’s degree program had exited within two years of enrollment, and nearly 65 percent of bachelor’s degree students had left the company’s schools in the same timeframe.

Last year, Bridgepoint posted its best year ever: netting income of more than $127 million, almost triple the year before. The company spends about 37 percent of operating costs related to education; the rest goes to marketing, corporate compensation and overhead.

Kirkham gets former recruiters on the record about Bridgepoint’s practices: Kristy Smith recruited one 22-year-old with a learning disability, holding his hand through the first five-week term and making sure he got Cs and Ds before leaving him to his own devices. And Brent Park recruited one woman for an online course who didn’t know how to type in a URL, and who needed an hour of coaching just to fill out the online application.

Kirkham’s report comes on the eve of a Senate committee hearing into Bridgepoint, which with any luck will help convince lawmakers that something drastic needs to be done to fix the broken for-profit education system. Online learning is all well and good. But as a general rule just about anybody enrolling in one of these shops would be better off watching a bunch of Khan Academy videos for free. It’s weird, but the more you pay for an online education, the worse that education seems to become.

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