Col­legeAmer­ica cam­puses on pro­ba­tion

Agency: Ari­zona sites seek re­cruit­ment, not ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess

The Arizona Republic - - Business - Rachel Lein­gang

Col­legeAmer­ica cam­puses in Phoenix and Flagstaff are on pro­ba­tion with their ac­cred­it­ing body be­cause the schools fo­cused more on ad­ding stu­dents than on pro­vid­ing a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, the ac­cred­i­tor said.

The schools fo­cus on ca­reer ed­u­ca­tion, with pro­grams in health care, busi­ness, tech­nol­ogy and graphic arts.

The school also seemed to blame poor aca­demic per­for­mance at its Flagstaff cam­pus on stu­dents’ eth­nic back­grounds, the ac­cred­it­ing body said. The stu­dents at the Flagstaff cam­pus are largely Na­tive Amer­i­can.

The Ac­cred­it­ing Com­mis­sion of Ca­reer Schools and Col­leges an­nounced the pro­ba­tion in Septem­ber. It ap­plies to mul­ti­ple cam­puses owned by Col­legeAmer­ica’s par­ent com­pany, the Utah­based Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing some sites in Ari­zona, Colorado, Utah and Cal­i­for­nia.

The schools must re­spond to the pro­ba­tion let­ter by Dec. 21.

The ac­cred­it­ing body’s pro­ba­tion let­ter claims the schools aren’t de­signed to help stu­dents to suc­ceed while the schools fo­cus more on re­cruit­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing.

The com­pany’s “ad­ver­tis­ing and re­cruit­ment tac­tics cou­pled with a poorly doc­u­mented ad­mis­sions process has fos­tered the cre­ation of a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion that the schools are ill-pre­pared to ed­u­cate,” the ac­cred­it­ing body wrote.

Col­legeAmer­ica opened its Flagstaff cam­pus in 2001 and its Phoenix cam­pus in 2004, the school’s web­site says.

As of its lat­est li­cense re­newal with the Ari­zona State Board for Pri­vate Post­sec­ondary Ed­u­ca­tion, the Phoenix cam­pus at 9801 N. Metro Park­way East had 348 stu­dents.

The Flagstaff cam­pus had 41. The schools ap­peared be­fore the state board in Oc­to­ber and were asked to re­port back on the pro­ba­tion is­sue quar­terly. They also were asked to put up a surety bond of $179,014 by the board.

Prob­lems to be ad­dressed

Over­all, the ac­cred­it­ing body found prob­lems with 18 poli­cies or prac­tices at the schools.

These prob­lems in­clude in­ac­cu­rate tran­scripts, en­roll­ment agree­ments with faulty lan­guage, out­dated in­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als and equip­ment, ad­min­is­tra­tive turnover, mis­lead­ing ad­ver­tis­ing prac­tices, be­low-bench­mark grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment rates, uncer­tainty over whether stu­dents meet ad­mis­sions re­quire­ments, and a lack of proof that stu­dents are meeting pro­gram ob­jec­tives or be­ing em­ployed in their field.

Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion CEO Eric Juh­lin said the grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment bench­marks were prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant as­pect of the pro­ba­tion let­ter. For some pro­grams, the low num­ber of stu­dents in pro­grams can lead to low grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment rates, he said.

For in­stance, if a pro­gram has 10 stu­dents, if six of them be­come em­ployed in their field, the school is be­low the ac­cred­i­tor’s bench­mark. But if seven be­come em­ployed in their field, they meet the bench­mark.

The schools will be able to re­spond to all items laid out in the pro­ba­tion let­ter and show they can come into full com­pli­ance, he said.

Stu­dents at af­fected cam­puses were no­ti­fied of the pro­ba­tion af­ter it hap­pened, as the ac­cred­it­ing body re­quires, Juh­lin said. The schools have also pre­pared a no­ti­fi­ca­tion for prospec­tive stu­dents about the pro­ba­tion, he said.

Juh­lin said he views the pro­ba­tion as a “good thing for stu­dents” be­cause they will ul­ti­mately ben­e­fit from the con­tin­u­ous re­view and im­prove­ment re­quired by ac­cred­i­ta­tion. But day to day, stu­dents likely will not no­tice a change be­cause the school is still ac­cred­ited, mean­ing they can still par­tic­i­pate in fed­eral aid pro­grams, he said.

Nev­er­the­less, Juh­lin said, there’s al­ways a risk that an in­sti­tu­tion could lose ac­cred­i­ta­tion.

“We think that risk is ex­tremely mi­nor, but risk is al­ways there,” he said.

And, in many cases, schools close if they lose ac­cred­i­ta­tion be­cause they see big de­creases in en­roll­ment and a se­vere fi­nan­cial deficit, he said.

But, he said, “we are not plan­ning nor do we see any rea­sons our in­sti­tu­tions are go­ing to close.”

“We are not plan­ning nor do we see any rea­sons our in­sti­tu­tions are go­ing to close.” Eric Juh­lin

Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion CEO

Flagstaff cam­pus is­sues

The schools’ grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment rates in mul­ti­ple pro­grams in Flagstaff have also lagged the bench­marks set by the ac­cred­it­ing body.

In one pro­gram at the Flagstaff cam­pus, a bach­e­lor’s in com­puter sci­ence, the em­ploy­ment rate was zero per­cent. The bench­marks re­quire 70 per­cent of grad­u­ates to be em­ployed in their field.

The school said the pri­mary fac­tor in low grad­u­a­tion and em­ploy­ment rates for the com­puter sci­ence pro­gram was low en­roll­ment, so the school de­cided not to en­roll new stu­dents and in­stead teach out the ones who were in the pro­gram.

But the Flagstaff school also ap­peared to place blame for low em­ploy­ment and grad­u­a­tion rates on the Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture of its stu­dents. The ac­cred­it­ing body said this mis­placed blame showed a “pro­found lack of sen­si­tiv­ity to the stu­dents the school serves.”

The school told the ac­cred­i­tor that 65 per­cent of its stu­dents on the Flagstaff cam­pus are Na­tive Amer­i­can. The school also cov­ers a large geo­graphic area and com­mutes can be as long as three hours one way.

“Due to this pop­u­la­tion mix, Col­legeAmer­ica Flagstaff is faced with sev­eral unique and chal­leng­ing cul­tural fac­tors that must be con­sid­ered and/or ad­dressed when serv­ing this pop­u­la­tion,” the school wrote.

The school pointed to a lack of eye con­tact, a fo­cus on liv­ing in the present, a lack of em­pha­sis on time, dif­fi­culty in speak­ing up and re­li­gious ob­ser­va­tion as chal­lenges with Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture.

“Clocks are not watched. Sched­ules are fluid and not val­ued,” the school wrote. “This makes dead­lines and sched­ules dif­fi­cult for our stu­dents to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate.”

The ac­cred­it­ing body re­buked the school for la­bel­ing cul­tural val­ues as “chal­lenges to be ad­dressed.” Such a la­bel “con­trib­utes to the im­pres­sion of a lack of re­spect for its stu­dents’ closely held cul­tural val­ues and that the school is ill-equipped to meet the needs of its stu­dents,” the ac­cred­i­tor wrote.

The ac­cred­i­tor said it was “as­tounded” to see the school gen­er­al­ize its stu­dents’ cul­ture and then blame the school’s bad out­comes on it.

“The school’s re­sponse es­sen­tially posits that Amer­i­can In­di­ans can­not be as suc­cess­ful as other stu­dents due to their cul­ture, which the Com­mis­sion found to be in no way ac­cept­able as a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor for the school’s low grad­u­a­tion rates,” the ac­cred­it­ing body wrote.

Juh­lin said the school was try­ing to ex­plain how much fo­cus and ap­pre­ci­a­tion it has for the cul­ture of its Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dents, but said the school did a “poor job” of do­ing so.

“We did a poor job in our nar­ra­tive. We came across as be­ing crit­i­cal, which is com­pletely op­po­site of how we run our school,” Juh­lin said.

Colorado law­suit al­leg­ing ‘de­cep­tive prac­tices’

In 2015, the at­tor­ney gen­eral of Colorado sued Col­legeAmer­ica, say­ing the schools used de­cep­tive prac­tices and prom­ises lu­cra­tive ca­reers while stu­dents rack up big debts.

Col­legeAmer­ica has schools in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Den­ver.

The law­suit con­tin­ues. The case went to trial in late 2017, but a judge has yet to rule.

Juh­lin said the Colorado law­suit, and uncer­tainty over its out­come, likely played into the ac­cred­it­ing body’s pro­ba­tion de­ci­sion. He also noted that the clo­sure of large for-profit school groups have been a “black eye” on some ac­cred­it­ing bod­ies, and they likely don’t want to be crit­i­cized for not be­ing ag­gres­sive.

In 2016, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion blocked an ap­pli­ca­tion by the Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion to re­clas­sify as a non­profit for the pur­poses of re­ceiv­ing fed­eral grants and loans.

The Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence sued. The mat­ter is still in the courts.

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