Summary:

An online associate’s degree program jointly managed by a private Ohio college and a San Francisco startup has been discontinued after accreditors raised questions about its business structure.

online degree

In an effort to reach new students, more schools are partnering with companies that enable online education options. But the recent closure of Ivy Bridge, an online associates-degree program, could make schools considering similar options more wary.

Ivy Bridge is jointly managed by Tiffin University, a non-profit college in Ohio, and Altius Education, a for-profit education company based in San Francisco. Since its creation in 2008, the program has offered students an online path to a two-year associate’s degree that they can then use to transfer to one of 150 four-year partner institutions in the country. In 2012, it reportedly enrolled about 2,000 of Tiffin’s 6,900 students.

Last week, Altius and Tiffin announced that their regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), had ordered them to discontinue Ivy Bridge classes. Altius said that, in 2010, the accrediting body had approved the program through 2020, but after recent changes to its policies, the HLC decided that its business structure did not meet its requirements.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the accreditor, which started its questioning last year, was concerned how much influence the for-profit Altius had over Ivy Bridge. As accredited institutions (like Tiffin) outsource more of their academics to unaccredited organizations (like Altius), the HLC apparently raises its level of scrutiny, and it found that Ivy Bridge’s structure was not to its liking. The Toledo Blade reported that a review from the HLC also included concerns about academic rigor and student retention.

Tiffin and Altius maintain that the HLC’s issue is related to the business relationship between the school and the startup, not the quality of Ivy Bridge’s classes.

Regardless, the program’s closure will certainly become fodder for debate as more schools partner with companies — including 2U, Coursera, Udacity, Minerva Project and Academic Partnerships — to move more instruction online.  Those companies that just provide a technology platform, instead of establishing a separate online institution in the way that Altius did with Tiffin, would seem to raise less scrutiny. But as Inside Higher Ed notes, Ivy Bridge’s experience could have a chilling effect. Kevin Kinser, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, told the outlet that colleges and companies need more information about what might rub accreditors the wrong way.

“We don’t know what the limits are in these kinds of contractual agreements,” he said. “This is something that a lot of institutions are taking a look at.”

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