Ashford University's campus was established in 1893 as the Mount St. Clare Academy, a boarding and day school for girls. The idea for this school formed when Father James A. Murray invited the Sisters of St. Francis to help teach in Clinton, Iowa. The new Mount St. Clare building was erected for this school in 1910 and remains in use through 2016.
Seeing a need for higher education in Clinton County and the surrounding area, the sisters founded Mount St. Clare College in 1918. This liberal arts institution was also an approved teacher education college from 1932 to 1954. In 1942, 60% of the rural teachers in Clinton County and 62% of the teachers in the city of Clinton school system had received all their training from Mount St. Clare College.
In 1950, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools first accredited Mount St. Clare College. The college then began to expand quickly, and acquired a convent building, new library, new gymnasium, the Science Building, and Durham Residence Hall. The college eventually became coeducational in 1967.
For the 1979–1980 school year, the college received approval for its first four-year degree, a bachelor's program in business administration. During the same year, Mount St. Clare Academy merged with St. Mary's High School in Clinton, forming Mater Dei High School (now known as Prince of Peace Preparatory). With the space freed by the academy's merger, the school began to offer additional four-year programs. In 1997, the sisters moved off campus into their new mother house, The Canticle. In 1998, the Durgin Educational Center was opened, which included new athletic facilities, including Kehl arena.
In 2003, Mount St. Clare College changed its name to The Franciscan University. At the same time, the university received approval to offer its first master's degree online. In September 2004, the school modified its name to The Franciscan University of the Prairies in order to avoid confusion with similarly named schools.
After a period of financial difficulty, the university was purchased by Bridgepoint Education in March 2005. After the completion of the sale, the institution's name was changed to Ashford University. Sponsorship by the Sisters of St. Francis ended.
Although the university was regionally accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, it sought regional accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges ("WASC") in 2010. In June 2012, WASC denied initial accreditation to Ashford University. Following WASC's denial of accreditation for being "lacking in several areas, including low numbers of full-time faculty, high student dropout rates and questions about academic rigor," HLC demanded additional information from Ashford prior to an October site visit.
In response to accreditation concerns, the school's trustees appointed Richard Pattenaude as president in October 2012. Pattenaude is a former chancellor of the University of Maine System who also served as chairman of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting body. Although its initial application to WASC was denied in 2010, its second application was accepted in 2013. In approving accreditation, the WASC Commission Action Letter stated "The Commission found that the University has responded to Commission concerns and judges that it is now in substantial compliance with Commission standards." The WASC visiting team noted in its final report that "the team found an institution that has been fundamentally transformed and whose culture has been changed in significant ways, including a shift from a market driven approach to an institution committed to student retention and success".
In 2013, Ashford University announced an alliance with business publisher Forbes Media. Under the terms of the alliance, Ashford's College of Business and Professional Studies was renamed the Forbes School of Business at Ashford University.
Ashford University closed the Iowa campus at the end of the 2016 school year due to an inability to maintain an adequate enrollment.
Leaders of Ashford and its predecessor institutions have included:Mother Mary Paul Carrico, O.S.F., 1918–1921
Mother Kristen Dunno, O.S.F., 1921–1924
Mother Mary Paul Carrico, O.S.F., 1924-1936
Mother Mary John McKeever, O.S.F., 1936–1948
Mother Mary Regis Cleary, O.S.F., 1948–1958
Sister Mary Cortona Phelan, O.S.F., 1958–1968
Sister Mary Cecile Devereux, O.S.F., 1968–1971
Sister Eileen Smith, O.S.F., 1972–1976
Dan C. Johnson, 1976–1985
The Rev. Charles E. Lang, 1986–1991
James J. Ross, 1991–2000
Brian McNicholas, 2001–2002
Michael E. Kaelke, 2002–2005
James Chitwood, 2005–2007
Jane McAuliffe, 2007–2011
Elizabeth Tice, 2011–2012
Richard Pattenaude, 2012–2016
Craig D. Swenson, 2016–present
Ashford University gets approximately 95% of its money from the US federal government, including $41 million from military tuition assistance and $26 million from GI Bill funds.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Ashford University employs 272 full-time faculty and 3,185 part-time faculty.
The university consists of four colleges:Forbes School of Business
College of Education
College of Health, Human Services, and Science
College of Liberal Arts
While a majority of students were enrolled in online courses managed from the university's headquarters in San Diego, California, Ashford's traditional campus was located in Clinton, Iowa. The 24-acre (9.7 ha) campus is about a half mile (800 m) from the Mississippi River and about a mile (1,600 m) north of Highway 30. The most notable building on campus is St. Clare Hall, which has served as the Mount St. Clare Convent, Novitiate, Academy, and College. The lower floors of St. Clare Hall housed administrative and support staff, while the upper floors contained classrooms.
The Durgin Educational Center housed Kehl Arena, the athletics department, and the animation lab. The renovated Ladd Science Building had chemistry, biology, microbiology, research and biochemistry labs. Durham and Regis Halls provide residence to on campus students. An article in the Huffington Post criticized the purchase of land from a local country club and described how "a new, 500-seat football stadium adorns the campus", even though no football team exists on campus. Despite the Huffington Post report, the stadium was not constructed for football. It is a soccer field and outdoor track used by Ashford's men's and women's soccer and track and field teams.
On July 9, 2015, the university announced that the Clinton, Iowa, campus will close after the 2015-2016 academic year, at the end of May 2016. The inability to meet campus enrollment requirements was a key factor in the Ashford University Board of Trustees' decision to call for the campus closure.
The Ashford University campus offers many extracurricular clubs and organizations for students. Academic organizations include the Ashford Junior-Senior Honor Society, the Ashford Student Iowa State Education Association, the Golden Key International Honour Society, the Mu Sigma Eta math and science honor society, the Phi Beta Lambda business organization, the Psychology Club, the Scholars Institute honors program, and the Sigma Tau Delta literature and education honor society. Artistic organizations on campus include the Concert Choir, AU Dance, the Fine Arts Club, the Photography Club, and the Wind Ensemble. Other significant student organizations include The Clarion newspaper, the Student Government Association, AU Life, the International Student Organization, the Latin American Student Organization, the Environmental Association, and numerous intramural sports and activities.
Ashford University students who excel academically have the opportunity to join several honor societies. Online students can join the Alpha Sigma Lambda and Phi Theta Kappa honor societies. Campus students are eligible for the Ashford Junior-Senior Honor Society, the Scholars Institute, Mu Sigma Eta math and science honor society, and Sigma Tau Delta literature and education honor society. Both online and campus students are able to join Delta Alpha Pi International Honor Society, Golden Key International Honour Society, and SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society.
Ashford University provides several benefits specifically to military students, including a Military Tuition Grant, a waiver of technology fees, free books and shipping, and specialized advisors who work exclusively with military students. In 2014, the University was included in the directory of military-friendly schools compiled by Military Advanced Education magazine. According to the Department of Defense, 16,636 service members are using their TA benefits for Ashford. An additional 9,831 use their GI Bill benefits for the school.
Ashford University teams were known as the Saints. The university competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) as an Independent member; the Saints formerly competed in the Midwest Collegiate Conference (MCC). Men's sports included baseball, basketball, soccer, and track & field; women's sports include basketball, soccer, softball, track & field and volleyball.
The Ashford Sharing Time and Resources (S.T.A.R.) program connects students to volunteering opportunities in communities across the United States. The Ashford Heroes program brings staff and faculty together for large-scale volunteering events. Previous volunteer events have included cleaning parks and public spaces, painting and refurbishing schools in underprivileged areas and building bikes for disadvantaged youth. Ashford S.T.A.R. and Heroes volunteers have also collected food, toys, and monetary donations to support numerous charities, such as the San Diego Food Bank, the Freezin' for Food campaign in Clinton, Iowa, and Toys for Tots.
According to U.S. Senate testimony by Arlie Willems, retired reviewer for the Iowa Department of Education, the Iowa Department of Education denied Ashford University's request in 2006 to offer an online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) on the grounds that the program "was more a collection of discrete courses than a cohesive program, was understaffed for appropriate interaction with students and supervision of both courses and clinical experiences, including student teaching. Many faculty members lacked appropriate academic background and/or experiences for their assigned responsibilities. The most serious concern noted by the team was the lack of responsibility on the part of the program in providing quality clinical experiences, the aspect of teacher preparation considered the most important by preparation programs in Iowa."
Willems also testified that Ashford entered into partnership with Rio Salado Community College whereas education courses from the Ashford BA in Social Science with a Concentration in Education could apply to Rio Salado's post-baccalaureate teacher education program. Once students have completed the online Ashford BA and the online Rio Salado teacher education program, they are eligible for an Arizona teaching license. Willem's noted that this partnership could be seen as a creative way to solve a problem in order to continue drawing students, or it could be seen as a way to circumvent the accountability system for quality in order to continue collecting tuition from students. An individual who has attained an Arizona license in this way does not automatically receive an Iowa license because Iowa and Arizona do not have a reciprocity agreement.
According to Willems, complaints from Ashford students concerning this agreement and licensure include:
1) Individuals from Iowa and many other states had completed Ashford's online Bachelor of Arts in Social Science with a Concentration in Education. These individuals had been led to believe that, upon completion of this program, they would be eligible for a license in their home state because Ashford has a state-approved teacher education program (the on-ground undergraduate program).
2) Individuals were students or graduates of the Ashford online baccalaureate program, but were not aware of the need to complete the Rio Salado program as well in order to receive an Arizona license. These individuals were not even aware of the Rio Salado partnership.
3) Ashford students were intending to complete student teaching through Rio Salado College and believed they would then automatically be eligible for an Iowa teaching license.
4) Students were completing an online degree through Ashford in early childhood believed that this degree would lead to an Iowa teaching license. It does not.
In May 2008, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit services division commenced a compliance audit of Ashford University covering the period March 10, 2005, through June 30, 2009. The OIG audit reached the following conclusions:
The stock of Ashford's parent company, Bridgepoint Education, fell the most in almost five months when the misuse of federal student aid was first publicly disclosed in 2009. When the official results were released in 2011, Senator Tom Harkin said this audit "reveals the same troubling pattern of for-profit colleges' taking advantage of students and taxpayers." The Department of Education has not yet responded to the findings.
The audit was the subject of a U.S. Senate committee hearing on March 10, 2011.
2009 expose related to abuse of military personnel
A Bloomberg News report revealed that Ashford was recruiting disabled soldiers at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, including a Marine with a traumatic brain injury.
According to a February 15, 2011, filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ashford University and its parent company, Bridgepoint Education, received a letter from the Iowa Attorney General's office on February 9, 2011, requesting "documents and detailed information" from January 1, 2008, to the present to determine if Ashford's business practices possibly violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act.
On March 10, 2011, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) chaired a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that examined a case study of Ashford's parent company, which has experienced near-exponential profit growth in the last few years despite low graduation rates. Bridgepoint owns two universities that it purchased when both were near bankruptcy, Ashford University in Iowa and the University of the Rockies in Colorado. When it purchased Ashford University in 2005, it had fewer than 300 students but today it claims to have over 78,000 students, 99% of which are online.
Senator Harkin took issue with success of the company saying that while Bridgepoint may have had record profits the students were not succeeding. According to information provided by Senator Harkin in the committee hearing, 63% of students who enrolled at Ashford University during the 2008-2009 school year withdrew before completion of their prospective program. Senator Harkin pointed out that Bridgepoint recorded more than $216 million in profits in 2010; of which 86.5 percent of its revenues come from federal funds. In reference to the dependence of Bridgepoint on public funds, Senator Harkin was quoted as saying, "I think this is a scam, an absolute scam."
Kathleen Tighe, who is an inspector general with the U.S. Department of Education, testified at the hearing that in an audit of Ashford, she discovered Ashford was improperly distributing student aid to students. "Seventy-five percent of the improper disbursements to students in our sample were made to students who never became eligible," Tighe said. Bridgepoint hadn't returned the improperly obtained student aid to the federal government, and said on a recent report she'd seen that Bridgepoint was "sitting on $130 million" in these types of funds.
Due to the ongoing Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) proceedings, and in order to preserve due process, Ashford's parent company, Bridgepoint Education, chose not to send executives to the HELP committee hearing while engaged in negotiations with FSA. Rather, Bridgepoint published a summary of responses called Bridgepoint Education Transparency.
Ashford has also been audited for its recruiting and finance practices in a U.S. Department of Education audit. Bridgepoint Education responded in March 2011 with a report asserting that the information used in the Senate hearing was either inaccurate or incomplete.
On December 3, 2014 a suit was filed in Arizona federal court charging that Bridgepoint Education is violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by robocalling sales prospects. Similar suits were filed in October in federal court in San Diego and the Northern District of Ohio.
In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that they were investigating Ashford University related to '"unlawful acts or practices related to the advertising, marketing or origination of private student loans."'
Former Senior Vice President Brian J. Zotti filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Ashford University and Bridgepoint Education in US District Court.
In 2016, Bridgepoint Education received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to the potential joint resolution of investigations by the California Attorney General and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
On September 12, 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Bridgepoint Education, the parent company of Ashford University, $31.5 million for deceiving students about the cost of private student loans; $23.5 million is supposed to be for relief and refunds to consumers.