Saturday, November 24, 2018

Ashford University Deceiving Consumers, Violating Department of Defense Regulations

dahneshaulis@gmail.com

Since its inception in 2005, Ashford University has been an overly priced, low value educational institution with questionable ethics and poor student outcomes.  As a result, servicemembers and veterans have filed a disproportionate number of complaints about the school through the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the non-profit Veterans Education Success.[i][ii][iii]
Ashford and its parent company Bridgepoint Education (BPI) have also been the subjects of investigations,[iv] lawsuits, and legal and out-of-court settlements for a continuing series of unethical and illegal business practices: taking advantage of wounded service members[v], falsifying student retention data,[vi] robocalling prospective students,[vii] and deceiving students about private loans.[viii]  All of these practices violated elements of the Department of Defense’s Memoranda of Understanding (“DOD MOU”) signed by one or more Bridgepoint executives in 2011 and 2014.[ix]  

Recently, Ashford University and Bridgepoint have also been under scrutiny by VA for making false statements about the location of the school’s main business location.  While this may not be a violation of the DOD MOU, it does exemplify the company’s repeated unscrupulous behavior[x]

VA’s GI Bill Comparison Tool states that Ashford University has a 16 percent graduation rate and 23 percent student loan repayment rate.  The page carries a warning because of its problems with GI Bill certification in California, and its current lawsuit as a defendant against the State of California. [xi]
According to authors from the US Treasury and Stanford University, Ashford University also carries a 47 percent 5-year cohort default rate (CDR). [xii]

Despite its horrendous record, Ashford University has received hundreds of millions of dollars in DOD TA money and Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill funds.  According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, almost all of Bridgepoint’s money comes from federal government programs, which also includes Pell Grants and federal student loans in addition to TA and GI Bill funds.[xiii]   

2017 State of California Lawsuit
In its recent 40-page civil complaint against Bridgepoint Education and Ashford University, the Attorney General of California stated that the company and its university systematically deceived consumers, including veterans, through:

(1) a high pressure sales culture,

(2) false or misleading statements concerning financial aid and costs of attendance,

(3) misrepresentations regarding transferability of credits, and

(4) misrepresentations regarding employment prospects.[xiv] [xv]

While all of these items are pertinent to service members and veterans, items 3 and 4 appear most applicable to stipulations in Ashford University’s DOD MOU.[xvi]
In Ashford University’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Defense, the school  agreed to provide specific consumer information to servicemembers, including information about financial aid and transferability of credits.  Judging from the State of California’s civil complaint, there is no indication that Ashford was providing this information. 

To the contrary, Bridgepoint and Ashford employees systematically deceived consumers about financial aid and transferability of credits:

False or Misleading Statements Concerning Financial Aid and Costs of Attendance (pp. 11-16 in the State of California’s Civil Complaint)
“In its efforts to lure in prospective students, Ashford systematically made false or misleading statements about students’ ability to obtain federal financial aid and the school’s costs of attendance.”  
“For example, Admissions Counselors commonly told consumers that federal financial aid would cover all their costs of attending Ashford University, or that they would receive certain kinds of federal financial aid, when the Counselors either had no basis, for making those promises.” 
“At the same time, Ashford misrepresented to consumers that it could not be determine final financial aid awards until after enrollment, and then it failed to issue the final awards until it was too late for students to withdraw without liability.  This led many to incur unexpected debts for tuition and fees they owed due to a shortfall in their final award.” 
“In another repeated tactic, Admissions Counselors enticed consumers by telling them that they could use federal financial aid for non-educational expenses, even though federal law prohibits this conduct.” 
“Admissions Counselors also made numerous other representations concerning various aspects of financial aid eligibility, a complex topic on which they were unprepared to provide guidance, as well as the costs of attending Ashford.” 
“Unlike other schools, Ashford does not send financial aid award letters until after a student enrolls, giving Admissions Counselors ample opportunity to make false forecasts about financial aid in their sales pitches to consumers.”
“In one common form of representation, Ashford told prospective students who had not yet filled out a FAFSA or received a financial aid award letter that they would not have to pay any “out of pocket costs.” 
“For many consumers, these kinds of misrepresentations made Ashford University seem more affordable than it actually was….Students ended up owing Ashford unanticipated out-of-pocket balances, or had to take out more loans than they expected.

“Ashford also told students and prospective students that final determinations about financial aid could not be made until after the student enrolled, and it required students to enroll without first receiving a financial aid award letter.  Ashford then waited until students were well into their coursework to send the financial aid award letters.  In reality, it was possible for Ashford to make final determinations prior to enrollment, just as many other colleges and universities do. Waiting to process financial aid until after an enrollment allowed Ashford to prevent prospective students’ financial concerns from getting in the way of Admissions Counselor’s quests to close their sales.”  

Elements of the MOU pertaining to financial aid (pp. 4-5):

f. Before enrolling a Service member, provide each prospective military student with specific information to locate, explain, and properly use the following ED and CFPB tools:

(1)  The College Scorecard which is a planning tool and resource to assist prospective students and their families as they evaluate options in selecting a school and is located at:  http://collegecost.ed.gov/scorecard/.

 (2)  The College Navigator which is a consumer tool that provides school information to include tuition and fees, retention and graduation rates, use of financial aid, student loan default rates and features a cost calculator and school comparison tool.  The College Navigator is located at: http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/.

 (3)  The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet which is a model aid award letter designed to simplify the information that prospective students receive about costs and financial aid so they can easily compare institutions and make informed decisions about where to attend school. The Shopping Sheet can be accessed at: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/guid/aid-offer/index.html.

 (4)  The “Paying for College” webpage which can be used by prospective students to enter the names of up to three schools and receive detailed financial information on each one and to enter actual financial aid award information.  The tool can be accessed at: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/paying-for-college/.

g. Designate a point of contact or office for academic and financial advising, including access to disability counseling, to assist Service members with completion of studies and with job search activities.

(1)  The designated person or office will serve as a point of contact for Service members seeking information about available, appropriate academic counseling, financial aid counseling, and student support services at the educational institution;   (2) The point of contact will have a basic understanding of the military tuition assistance program, ED Title IV funding, education benefits offered by the VA, and familiarity with institutional services available to assist Service members. 

h.  Before offering, recommending, arranging, signing-up, dispersing, or enrolling Service members for private student loans, provide Service members access to an institutional financial aid advisor who will make available appropriate loan counseling, including, but not limited to: 
(1)  Providing a clear and complete explanation of available financial aid, including Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. 
(2)  Describing the differences between private and federal student loans to include terms, conditions, repayment and forgiveness options. 
(3)  Disclosing the educational institution’s student loan Cohort Default Rate (CDR), the percentage of its students who borrow, and how its CDR compares to the national average.  If the educational institution’s CDR is greater than the national average CDR, it must disclose that information and provide the student with loan repayment data. 

Misrepresentations Regarding Transferability of Credits (pp. 16-23 in the State of California’s Civil Complaint)
“Ashford falsely told consumers that their prior credits would transfer into Ashford University.”
“Ashford also systematically misrepresented the extent to which Ashford University credits can transfer to other universities. Ashford’s Admissions Counselors routinely enticed prospective students with the promise that Ashford University offers them the flexibility to study online at a pace convenient to them, earning credits that they can later apply to other, less flexible, schools that the student was considering.”
“Ashford’s sales teams also told consumers that because Ashford University was regionally accredited, its credits were certain or likely to transfer to other schools….In other instances, Admissions Counselors have stated that Ashford University are accepted at specific schools, such as University of Southern California, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and Harvard.” 
“Ashford also made misrepresentations regarding the transfer of credits from ongoing and future casework. Ashford University student and Army Reserve veteran P.M. was deceived by false promises that credits he earned at a community college while attending Ashford University would transfer to Ashford….As P.M. approached graduation at Ashford, he was alarmed to discover that Ashford had capped the amount of credits he could transfer….because Ashford broke its promise to accept all of the community college credits, P.M. had to spend additional time in school at Ashford University to make up for lost credits under the lower housing allowance. As a result he also fell behind in his rent, had to take another job to keep up with the bills, and his credit score suffered. Second, because GI Bill benefits are not unlimited, he wasted some of his veterans’ benefits by spending them on coursework he was unable to put toward a degree.”
This violates the following provision of the Ashford University’s DOD MOU:

“(1) Disclose its transfer credit policies and articulated credit transfer agreements before a Service member’s enrollment.  Disclosure will explain acceptance of credits in transfer is determined by the educational institution to which the student wishes to transfer and refrain from making unsubstantiated representations to students about acceptance of credits in transfer by another institution.” (p.7) 

Misleading and Deceptive Use of "Military Friendly" and "Best For Vets" Logos

Ashford University continues to use logos that are deceptive.  Promotional materials show that Ashford University claims to be "Military Friendly" and "Best For Vets."  But these designations are no longer valid.  


[iii] Veterans Education Success has reported 113 complaints from servicemembers and veterans regarding Ashford University.  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/556718b2e4b02e470eb1b186/t/5a302b5df9619a75ac81f0b7/1513106270402/Final+Ashford+Memo+%28Public%29.pdf

[iv] Ashford University was a major focus of the PBS/Frontline documentary, College Inc. http://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-college-inc/

In 2011, in Senate Hearings, Senator Harkin referred to Ashford University as “an absolute scam.” https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/03/11/senate_hearing_on_for_profit_colleges_singes_accreditors_as_well_as_bridgepoint

[xv] Bridgepoint Education is also presumably under investigation by the State Attorneys General in New York and North Carolina.  This is in addition to the company’s settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

DOD, VA Get Low Grades for Helping Vets Make College Choices

dahneshaulis@gmail.com

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are tasked with helping servicemembers and their families make successful transitions to civilian life.

The Department of Defense offers college classes on base through their education centers. They also provide free education opportunities through DOD Tuition Assistance (TA). DOD offers a tool called TA Decide to help servicemembers choose schools and a short series of classes for outgoing servicemembers, called the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). The US Army also has Army University which puts all military education in one place.

VA claims to offer individual counseling for transitioning servicemembers and veterans seeking information about post-military careers and education. This includes a career tool called Career Scope and an online tool for selecting schools, called the GI Bill Comparison Tool.

How well are these education and career programs working? It would certainly appear from the available data that DOD and VA are failing many servicemembers, veterans, and their families.

I have reached out to DOD for information about the effectiveness of DOD TA, TA Decide, US Army University, and other programs but have not gotten any feedback. I have also tried to connect with VA but they also have not responded.

According to Student Veterans of America and their NVEST report, 46 percent of all people using the GI Bill do not finish school, and 25 percent use their hard earned GI Bill on for-profit colleges. In 2017, CBS News also reported that 40 percent of all GI Bill money goes to for-profit colleges. To make matters worse, some of the worst actors in the subprime college sector (like University of Phoenix, Ashford University, Colorado Tech, and Purdue University Global-Kaplan) get a large amount of TA and GI Bill money.

[Image below from GI Bill Comparison Tool shows the school with the most GI Bill students. Downloaded 11-8-2018. ]




In 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that DOD had done some work on ensuring greater accountability from online schools, but that more needed to be done. Since 2017, DOD has made two review of schools receiving TA funds, but the information has not been released to the public. US Army University also continues to partner with subprime colleges such as University of Phoenix, DeVry, and Ashford University.


Related links:

8 tips to help vets pick the right college (Military Times)

Veteran Mentor Network on LinkedIn

Warrior Scholar Project

Service to School

Veterans Upward Bound