Arizona vows focus on quality in major online expansion

Absorbing troubled online institution, university pledges $225 million investment

August 4, 2020
University of Arizona
Source: iStock

In the process of acquiring the troubled online Ashford University, the University of Arizona is promising the venture heavy investment to avoid the struggles often associated with moves toward serving older student populations.

Arizona, in converting the 35,000-student Ashford into the new non-profit University of Arizona Global Campus, is the latest major US public institution to bet on a substantial future beyond teaching school-leavers on residential campuses.

In doing so, Arizona recognises cautionary tales such as Purdue University’s challenging 2017 conversion of Kaplan University into Purdue University Global, said Brent White, vice-provost for global affairs at Arizona.

“There are many lessons to be learned from that,” Professor White said.

The chief example, he told Times Higher Education, centred on financial resources. While Zovio, the education technology services company owning Ashford, is selling the property for only $1, it is guaranteeing Arizona $225 million (£172 million) in revenue over the first 15 years.

“That is an important part of this transaction,” Professor White said.

Purdue University, meanwhile, has faced major challenges turning around Kaplan, one among many for-profit colleges that developed a reputation for leaving students with high debts and poor qualifications. Its Purdue Global operation lost $43 million last year, mostly attributed to marketing costs and flat enrolment.

The new Arizona Global Campus also may have the benefit of an economic downturn – the time when adult students more reliably seek postsecondary training to prepare for new careers.

And the University of Arizona, while operating separately from Arizona Global Campus, expects to learn from its online practices at a moment when the coronavirus pandemic is forcing all of higher education into broader reliance on remote instruction, Professor White said.

Arizona joins Purdue as part of a small but growing number of public institutions responding to suggestions that they owe society a far greater effort to serve the demand for mid-career retraining that for-profit colleges largely failed to properly address.

The pressure reflects some of the same political arguments that have long surrounded the for-profit sector. Some long-time boosters of profit-making colleges are now endorsing the idea of public colleges working alongside private service providers, while some of their long-time critics fear that public institutions are losing their focus on public service.

The Ashford University acquisition reflects both sides of that equation. Ashford’s degree offerings largely reflect workforce development needs, which almost none of which the University of Arizona’s existing online courses address. Yet Ashford has a tarnished history that includes low student completion rates and a record of enrolling military veterans in California while sidestepping the state’s tough regulations for protecting them.

One of the most successful large-scale attempts to manage that balance is the private non-profit Southern New Hampshire University, whose online operation has a reputation for phoning potential students only seconds after they make an online inquiry.

“What some see as efficient marketing, others view as predatory,” according to a report last year by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative thinktank. “Many public universities are reluctant to adopt the marketing tactics of the for-profit sector, out of a genuine desire to avoid aggressive approaches but also because of an aesthetic revulsion to something they consider undignified or commercial.”

Even before the Covid outbreak, Professor White said, Arizona was ready to move in that broader direction. The goal, he said, involved “delivering on the land grant mission of the University of Arizona, which is to provide access as broadly as possible to students”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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