On March 13, Ashford University announced plans to pursue nonprofit status. While the move has been framed by some observers as part a broader trend that is seeing for-profit educational institutions seek nonprofit status, in many respects, Ashford is simply returning to its roots.
The Restructuring of Bridgepoint Education
News of Ashford’s plan to pursue nonprofit status emerged when Bridgepoint Education, Ashford University’s holding company, announced plans to reposition itself as an online program management (OPM) provider. As stated in a press release issued on March 13, the company plans to “separate from its academic institutions, Ashford University and University of the Rockies, and become an Online Program Management (OPM) company,” and as part of the move, both universities will also merge and collectively pursue nonprofit status.
For Ashford, the move will not only potentially change its status but also expand its program offerings. Graduate programs presently offered by the University of the Rockies will be delivered by Ashford University.
While Bridgepoint Education does plan to formally separate from Ashford University and University of the Rockies, it will not entirely sever its relationship. Pending approval, the newly merged institution will negotiate a services agreement and if all goes well, the expanded the entity will become Bridgepoint Education’s first client as an OPM.
Ashford University’s Long and Complex History
Unlike many online universities, Ashford University can trace its roots back to 1918, which is when the school was founded an order of nuns (the Sisters of St. Francis) in Clinton, Iowa as a women’s junior college. At the time, the college was called Mount St. Clare College. In 1950, the College was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Later it was accredited by WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). Still operating under the inaugural name, the college rolled out its first bachelor’s degree in 1979. Then, in 2002, MSC became The Franciscan University and two years later started offering master’s degrees. After a rocky financial period, the college was bought out by Bridgepoint, and in 2005, it rebranded as Ashford. During this time, Ashford rapidly expanded online offerings and eventually became a fully online institution.
Given the university’s history, the current move to pursue nonprofit status may be best seen as history repeating itself, albeit under a new name and on a much broader scale. After all, combined, Ashford and University of the Rockies are currently home to over 40,000 students. As Ashford University’s current president and CEO, Dr. Craig Swenson, said on the occasion of Bridgepoint Education’s announcement, “Nonprofit status will allow us to better serve students.”
Given Ashford‘s century-long history, there is no question that the institution already has resilience on its side. What remains to be seen is whether the current restructuring and merger with University of the Rockies will enable Ashford to finally regain its financial footing and truly focus on becoming a leader in online education.