Accreditation Problems Strike Popular Schools

By Staff

Headquartered in Arizona, but with national reach and reputations, once well-thought-of Pima Community College and online megaschool University of Phoenix are both in midst of accreditation crises. Not only does this jeopardize the schools’ reputations, but it may decrease the value of their students’ educations.

Complaints about Pima’s leadership spurred a recent campus visit by a site team from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the college’s regional accreditor.  According to an Inside Higher Ed article, a report from the four reviewers identified serious and “highly complex” problems on nine major themes. They included a “culture of fear,” an allegedly absentee governing board, flawed management by past and present administrators, and accusations of sexual harassment against Roy Flores, Pima’s former chancellor. But while the site team found a raft of governance problems at the college, they did not turn up substantial academic problems.

The team also determined that Pima had run afoul of new language in the commission’s criteria for accreditation, which seeks to ensure that an “institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.” This was due to a move to tighten the college’s admission standards, which was a key part of the four-year college push Flores had championed. Pima also took heat over how it sought to change the delivery of remedial education.

“The college’s decision to change its admissions policy,” the commission’s report stated, “demonstrates a lack of understanding of its role in serving the public good in its community.”

In addition, Pima failed to notify the commission about its mission-shifting admission policy changes, according to the report, which was released earlier this month.

The University of Phoenix’s accreditation woes are more serious than the for-profit giant had been told to expect, with a site team from its regional accreditor recommending last week that the university be placed on probation because of concerns about a lack of autonomy from its holding company, the Apollo Group.

The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools last year wrapped up its accreditation review of Phoenix. In January the accreditor informed Apollo that it had identified unspecified problems that would be disclosed in a forthcoming draft report. Company officials told investors that it would probably be placed “on notice,” a less severe penalty than probation.

But the report that Apollo received surprised company officials and industry analysts alike. It described “alleged administrative and governance deficiencies” that led to the call for probationary status, according to a corporate filing released by Apollo.

“Specifically, the review team concluded that the University of Phoenix has insufficient autonomy relative to its parent corporation and sole shareholder, Apollo Group, Inc., to assure that its board of directors can manage the institution, assure the university’s integrity, exercise the board’s fiduciary responsibilities and make decisions necessary to achieve the institution’s mission and successful operation,” the company said.

The university produces more than 90 percent of Apollo’s revenue. And company officials said Phoenix had become more autonomous since its last review by the commission, which was in 2002. The company also said its management structure is “customary” and designed to maintain the operational and financial well-being of its subsidiary, which enrolls 320,000 students.

While the commission found other problems with Phoenix, Apollo officials said those issues were not the basis for the probation recommendation. The other areas of concern include retention and graduation rates, reliance on federal financial aid, assessment of student learning and documentation of credit hour policies “with regard to learning outcomes of learning teams,” the company said. Those problems will require future reporting and follow-up activities.

Western International University, which Apollo also owns, received a similar probation recommendation. Probation status would mean that the commission had determined that Phoenix is out of compliance with criteria for accreditation. The probation could last up to two years, and would require another site visit. That’s a more laborious process than getting out from under “on notice” status, which can be accomplished with corrections and a written report.

Phoenix, like most for-profits, has seen its enrollment tumble in recent years. Some of that decline has been self-inflicted, however, as the university seeks to improve  its student retention. For example, Phoenix recently began a free trial enrollment period, during which the university and students themselves can determine whether they are ready for college-level work.

The probationary status, if approved, will no doubt be a challenge for Phoenix. News last month of the possible “on notice” sanction took a big whack at Apollo’s share price. And the more severe probation would mean that Phoenix would need to reference its probationary status in all statements about its accreditation.