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 – 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?