Ashford University’s eligibility to enroll GI Bill users is once again in jeopardy.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has deemed the school’s state-level approval “legally insufficient” and issued a notice to Ashford, a top enroller of military students, that it has 60 days to comply with the law or lose its ability to receive VA funds.
Such a result would prevent students from using their Post-9/11 GI Bill, as well as other VA education benefits, at the school.
Both the school and the Arizona Department of Veterans Services are refuting the VA’s claim — the latest in a series of clashes between the online for-profit school and the federal agency that oversees education benefits for veterans and their dependents.
Ashford’s eligibility has been in question for more than a year, since it closed its brick-and-mortar campus in Iowa, where it previously had its state-level approval, a requirement for federal VA approval. Earlier this year, Ashford turned to Arizona and now operates an administrative and student service center in Phoenix.
In September, VA acknowledged the state of Arizona’s approval of Ashford’s online programs, with a VA spokesman describing this as the “final step to certify students for use of the GI Bill” through the location.
But in recent days, VA said the Phoenix campus does not qualify as a “main campus.” According to the VA, Ashford’s main campus is in California, meaning the jurisdiction for approval would fall to California, not Arizona.
“A school’s main campus is a logical choice for the nexus of approval, as that location will normally have the bulk of the institution’s administrative and organizational personnel needed to meet the statutory reporting and record keeping requirements,” VA Spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email.
Ashford President and CEO Craig Swenson called the VA’s regulations “outdated” in a letter to students and slammed the “especially egregious” timing of the department’s announcement so close to Veterans Day.
“It should be noted that it is not uncommon for institutions to have more than one ‘main campus,’ sometimes in multiple states or even in foreign countries,” Swenson continued. “More importantly, there is a general consensus that current VA regulations are outdated. They were written during the ‘brick and mortar’ era of higher education and did not anticipate the emergence of online institutions such as Ashford, where students, faculty, and facilities are geographically distributed.”
Cashour said in response, “Our regulations deal adequately with online programs. This situation is entirely the fault of Ashford University leaders, who did not address VA’s multiple requests that they become compliant with the law.”
Ashford isn’t the first online school in this situation to seek approval in a different state, Cashour said, adding, “Those schools simply took the necessary steps to seek the proper approval and resolved their situations in a few weeks or months without causing any undue burden on their veteran students.”
As Military Times has previously reported, Ashford enrolled nearly 8,000 GI Bill students in fiscal 2016 and more than 15,000 students using tuition assistance benefits, which could also be affected if the school loses its eligibility to accept for VA funds.
The VA defines “main campus” as the “location where the primary teaching facilities of an educational institution are located” or, if unclear, “the location of the primary office of its chief executive officer.”
As far as the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services is concerned, however, the Phoenix campus qualifies as a main campus, spokeswoman Nicole Baker said. The state approving agency wrote in a letter to VA it “has determined that its approval authority extends to online institutions that have an online administrative and student services center in Arizona, at least where that Arizona location is recognized by the licensing body and the accreditor for the institution.”
Cashour said based on current information, Ashford has two options to reach compliance: seek approval in California or relocate its main campus to Arizona.
Ashford applied for state approval in California last year but withdrew its application, later alleging VA and California officials pressured the Iowa approving agency to drop its approval of Ashford.
A spokeswoman for Bridgepoint Education, Ashford’s parent company, did not say whether the school plans to renew its efforts in California but said that Ashford plans to “vigorously challenge” the VA’s latest decision.