The Higher Learning Commission and the end of Ivy Bridge: Should other schools with online partnerships be worried?
By Richard Garrett, Vice President & Principal Analyst
On August 2, Altius Education, the company behind Ivy Bridge College, an online Associate’s program offered by Tiffin University in Ohio, made the surprise announcement that Ivy Bridge was to be shut down. The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Tiffin’s accreditor, had informed the parties that Ivy Bridge was no longer covered by Tiffin’s accreditation, and must cease operations by October 20. One big irony is that Ivy Bridge and Altius are recipients of a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant from the Gates Foundation, designed to enhance and scale up the model. So why did HLC decide to shut down Ivy Bridge, and should other schools be worried?
Ivy Bridge was founded in 2008. Contrary to the Bachelor’s and Master’s focus of most 4-year schools active in the online market at the time, Tiffin and Altius focused on Associate’s degrees, positioning Ivy Bridge as a new path to a Bachelor’s degree down the road. Ivy Bridge partnered with over 150 schools to offer students a wide range of transfer options, notionally marrying a wholly online start with a more conventional, campus-based finish. Many graduates enrolled in one of Tiffin’s Bachelor’s degrees. The Ivy Bridge degree cost about $8,900 a year, more than double the average price at a community college, and in line with the in-state norm at Public 4Y schools.
Ivy Bridge appears to have peaked at around 2,900 students, and growth in recent years was said to be flat. Ivy Bridge is positioned as the only substantial initiative of Altius Education, while Tiffin University now offers a wide range of online Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in its own right. Ivy Bridge’s enrollment may have been flat, but Tiffin has grown substantially. In Fall 2005, Tiffin reported total enrollment of only 1,600, compared to estimated Fall 2012 enrollment of 6,900. Ivy Bridge was a factor behind this growth, but far from the whole story.
So what went wrong at Ivy Bridge? Altius and Tiffin maintain that HLC disliked the outsourcing arrangement, and changed its rules. HLC counters that quality and outcomes were the real demise of the operation. Who’s right?
Tiffin was successfully reaccredited in 2010, and apparently no issues were found with Ivy Bridge. HLC’s current “Institutional Change” policy, instituted in 2010, requires accredited schools to obtain Commission approval for any program of study where 25% or more of delivery is outsourced. Cases when 50% or more is outsourced are acceptable in only exceptional circumstances. Ivy Bridge may have crossed the 50% threshold, and HLC says their inquires suggested insufficient oversight by Tiffin. HLC also implied that degree completion was poor. According to press coverage, Tiffin was asked to make a case for the arrangement but decided not to, prompting HLC to say that Tiffin effectively walked away from Ivy Bridge. Altius released a statement that HLC changed its rules, implying inadequate notice and forcing the end of a popular program on an organizational technicality. As is the way of most U.S. accreditors, review reports are not published, and Tiffin has so far declined to share anything further, so it is difficult to determine the precise chain of events.
The status of Altius’ $300,000 Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant is unclear. Tiffin is named as one of the organizations involved, and the vision was to use Altius’ new Helix platform, essentially an adaptive learning tool, to expand Ivy Bridge to 20,000 students served over five years. The intention was to greatly enhance the student experience and reduce the cost of the Associate’s degree to $5,000 a year.
So what should we take away from the closure of Ivy Bridge? Should other schools be worried? Federal recognition of accreditors requires substantive change rules including explicit permission to outsource greater than 25% of a program of study. Therefore HLC’s policy is essentially based on federal rules, and is in line with arrangements at other accreditors. Yet there appears to be no further definition of what it means for a third party to “offer more than 25% of one or more of [an] accredited institution’s programs.” Does “offer” refer to program materials, provision of faculty, student support or assessment? What does 25% look like?
There seems to be a very blurred line between a program offered by employees of an accredited institution and a program overseen by employees of said institution but “offered” by a third party. The key issue would appear to be the quality of oversight by the accredited institution, and the performance of the program, not a fuzzy ratio of who offers what. If Ivy Bridge represents a promising innovation, as the Gates Foundation concluded, HLC’s action appears depressingly bureaucratic. If Ivy Bridge’s outcomes, and Tiffin’s oversight, are as weak as HLC implies, reform is clearly needed. If the concern had been about Tiffin alone, HLC would be begun a lengthy process of sanction and monitoring to drive change, with closure only a distant and unlikely possibility. Why not take the same approach for a third party overseen by an accredited institution?
Altius can proceed with other partners- on July 30 the firm signed a deal with Harrisburg University to offer two online Master’s degrees- and Tiffin has a burgeoning in-house online operation, but the fate of Ivy Bridge should have been designed so as to send a very clear signal to other schools about good practice. The lesson seems to be that oversight and outcomes are important, and that 25% outsourced is a red flag, and 50% is a really big red flag. Unfortunately, the ultimate takeaway is that the lack of clarity on all counts seems just as problematic as anything wrong with Ivy Bridge.