Degrees of difficulty 

University of the Rockies announces closure, leaving some students with an incomplete

Nikki Hohl and Nadine Doughty are less than halfway through their doctor of psychology programs at the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs.

Now, they wonder how they can finish the five-year degree after the school announced it will close later this year and shift the campus to the Tabor Center in downtown Denver.

Driving 60 miles one way for classes and required clinical sessions is impractical for them, they say, time-wise and financially, especially considering they already owe more than $40,000 each for classes taken so far. The five-year degree will cost more than $100,000; if they can't finish at University of the Rockies, they might have wasted their money altogether, because their credit hours might not transfer to another school, leaving them with debt and no degree to show for it.

Despite efforts to find out more, Hohl says, "We're not hearing back from anybody. We feel like we're out here alone."

University of the Rockies' owner, for-profit San Diego-based Bridgepoint Education, Inc., says in response to written questions it's "committed, in both word and action" to supporting its students and that information is "readily available."

"The transition of the Springs campus to Denver is taking place in order to best serve our valued students, meet the needs of new students, and support the continued success of our institution," the statement said.

But Bridgepoint is well-known for its profit-driven motives, at the expense of students. It's shelled out millions to settle lawsuits and is under investigation by state and federal authorities across the country for its business practices.

Nighttime notification

Hohl, in her late 30s, wants to work as a criminal justice psychologist, which requires a doctoral degree for licensure. Doughty, 48, hopes to get licensed as a neuro-psychologist and conduct wilderness therapy.

They say they've enjoyed attending the school, and are impressed with the faculty — two are doctors at the state mental hospital in Pueblo. But the fact that the school announced the closing via email one night in January and hasn't been forthcoming since has them worried.

"People were scared," Doughty says. "We've had all this money going out for our degrees, and then they drop the bomb, 'We're closing the school down, but you can drive to Denver.'"

In March, several of the school's board members met with students, but, Doughty says, "They weren't real giving at that point." When students asked for mileage reimbursement to drive to Denver and noted the downtown Denver campus poses parking problems, they were told, "Oh, you can park at Lincoln [Avenue] and take the train in," Doughty recalls.

Hohl adds, "They're not even sure when classes will be offered."

Moreover, Doughty says many of the 20 faculty members who taught core courses in the Springs have left, and some students have found out on their own that many, if not all, of their credits won't transfer elsewhere. "You're more or less starting over again if you look outside the program," she says.

The university also plans to close its Rockies Counseling Center, where students, under supervision, fulfill their practicum requirement by counseling clients who seek help there, Hohl says. The center serves more than 100 patients locally.

Bad times

Bridgepoint formed in 2003 with financing from Warburg Pincus, a Wall Street private equity firm that has spent $3.8 million lobbying Congress on behalf of Bridgepoint since 2011. In 2005, Bridgepoint acquired Franciscan University in Clinton, Iowa, renaming it Ashford College. In 2007, it acquired the Colorado School of Professional Psychology and renamed it University of the Rockies.

Ashford offers associate, bachelor's and master's degree programs, while University of the Rockies offers master's and doctoral degree programs.

For-profit colleges bring in $35 billion a year, $32 billion of which comes from federal financial aid, Education Opportunity Network reported last year.

High loan default rates triggered interest by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which singled out Bridgepoint in 2011 for emphasizing marketing and recruitment over instruction, its high drop-out rates and student defaults.

The government reported that after buying the 312-student Iowa school, Bridgepoint's enrollment exploded to 77,000 students within a few years. (University of the Rockies has never constituted a majority of Bridgepoint's students. In 2013, it comprised only 3 percent of the total: 1,758 studying online and 160 attending its 555 E. Pikes Peak Ave. campus.)

From 2007 to 2010, the government case study reported, Bridgepoint's revenue grew by 832 percent, to $713.2 million, with all but 6 percent of that coming from federal financial aid. It spent more than twice as much on marketing, $2,604 per student, than on instruction in 2009, a fraction of what a school such as the University of Iowa ($14,882 per student) spends on instruction.

From 2008 to 2010, 84 percent of associate degree candidates and 63 percent of bachelor's degree candidates withdrew. (No data was provided for doctoral degree candidates.) Bridgepoint students also showed a high rate of default on loans.

"A school that has large numbers of its students defaulting on their loans indicates problems with program quality, retention, student services, career services, and reputation in the employer community," the case study said.

The committee invited Bridgepoint CEO Andrew Clark to attend the 2011 hearing. He didn't show. Clark, whose compensation is based on school quality and profitability, was paid $20.5 million in one year, the study reported.

Bridgepoint also is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and attorneys general in California, New York and North Carolina. In May, it agreed to pay the state of Iowa $7.25 million to settle a case that alleged the school's conduct led to students dropping out and not repaying their debts, according to media reports.

The Colorado Attorney General's Office wouldn't confirm or deny it's looking into University of the Rockies, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which granted the school permission to bestow degrees in 2007, noted that 13 University of the Rockies students have filed 20 complaints against the institution since 2010 but was unable to elaborate.

Bridgepoint also is ensnared in lawsuits alleging that Bridgepoint's executives breached their fiduciary duties and were unjustly enriched, and that the company engaged in unlawful recruitment practices, among other things, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show.

More recently, Bridgepoint's student count declined by 22 percent in 2013 from 2012 due to "lower productivity levels of our admissions counselors and student inquiry coordinators" and "negative media scrutiny" of for-profit schools, the company said in an SEC filing.

In this year's first quarter, the company reported an $8 million operating loss, and its stock price closed at $13.54 on Monday after reaching $25.71 in early 2010.

Where to from here?

While school officials have set up a July 8 meeting with students, the Graduate Student Association recently voted to "go public" with their concerns, which led association president Hohl and Doughty to the Indy.

Hohl and Doughty say they can't get straight answers about how they'll complete their degrees. Bridgepoint, though, says via email that it plans an "option" for students to remain in the Springs if they choose or can't attend in Denver. The company didn't elaborate, but that's a requirement for schools accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, a Commission spokesman says.

Both Hohl and Doughty want to hear details of the plan. Since the closure announcement, they've watched faculty leave, the library move, online accesses shut off and other assets siphoned from Colorado Springs.

"It's been a nightmare," Hohl says.


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