Was the Department of Education really responsible for closing Stratford University?


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When the University of Stratford, a for-profit university with a handful of campuses in Virginia and Maryland, announced last month that it would close, officials gave students only a week’s notice before the final end of the course.

The news made Stratford the latest in a long line of for-profit colleges to hastily close. These sudden closures often leave students scrambling to figure out where their credits can be transferred and how to complete their studies.

Stratford President Richard Shurtz, owner of the university with his wife, blamed the closure on the US Department of Education.

The department recently revoked recognition of Stratford’s accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, leaving the university with 18 months to find a new agency or else lose access to federal financial aid. In the meantime, the Ministry has imposed severe restrictions on ACICS accredited colleges, including limitations on their registration.

Shurtz said these actions made it impossible for Stratford to survive financially. But some political pundits say the university could have taken steps months ago to change its fate.

Recognition of ACICS has come under scrutiny — from time to time — since the Obama administration, with the last threat to its recognition lasting more than a year before it was withdrawn. This gave Stratford enough time to find a new accreditor and avoid restrictions from the Department for Education, policy experts said.

“Put blame on the department is misleading,” said Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “The writing has been on the wall for about 18 months now.”

“Six years notice”

The future of ACICS had been uncertain for several years before the Ministry of Education withdrew its recognition in August. The agency said it was stripping the agency of its recognition due to the continued failure to meet departmental standards, such as having adequate resources and staff expertise.

It was not the first time the Department of Education withdrew recognition from ACICS, which primarily accredits for-profit colleges. In 2016, the Obama administration ended recognition of ACICS during a crackdown on proprietary institutions.

The Trump administration reinstated the accreditor after ACICS fought a legal battle against the Department of Education. But ministry officials have repeatedly raised issues with ACICS, even after it regained recognition.

For example, Virginia state regulators flagged an ACICS-accredited college, Virginia International University, in 2019 alleging the for-profit institution harbored rampant plagiarism and poor online education. And in 2020, a USA Today survey found that another ACICS-accredited institution, Reagan National University, appeared to have no instructors or students.

In June 2021, a senior Ministry of Education official denied ACICS recognition. But ACICS appealed the decision.

When the Ministry of Education revoked ACICS recognition in August – for the last time – the accreditor was overseeing only about two dozen institutions. That’s down from more than 230 when ACICS first lost recognition in 2016.

Barmak Nassirian, vice president of higher education policy at the interest group Veterans Education Success, asked why Stratford had to close this time ACICS had lost its recognition. Stratford has been accredited by ACICS since at least 2002, long before the accreditor first lost recognition.

“It really tests the credulity to blame the department for this,” Nassirian said. “The institution has had more than six years notice that its accreditor is in trouble.”

Shurtz said Stratford was seeking accreditation with the Distance Education Accreditation Commission, but did not respond to email questions about when university officials submitted an initial application. . Applying for DEAC accreditation can take at least two years, and the agency can deny institutions after reviewing their programs, results, and other issues.

DEAC policies also prohibit institutions that have applied for accreditation from suggesting that they are accredited or will be accredited until accreditation is granted.

Who is really responsible for the sudden closure?

The Department of Education imposed several restrictions on ACICS-accredited institutions wishing to continue participating in Title IV programs, including Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans. Losing access to this source of funding can prove fatal for many colleges.

The ministry said it would prevent institutions from enrolling new students who could not complete their programs within 18 months and asked colleges to provide financial security in the event of closure.

The enrollment restrictions were too much for Stratford to bear, according to Shurtz. When the closure was announced, he said incoming students accounted for about 40% of the university’s revenue.

Nassirian pointed to reliance on these students as a problem.

“Why are they so reliant on new enrollment to serve their current students that they have to close so immediately?” said Nassirian.

Policy advocates have frequently called on the Department of Education to monitor the financial health of colleges to avoid sudden closures. But state regulators also have a role to play in flagging up financial issues, according to Dustin Weeden, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

“There are some challenges with for-profit companies because they tend to be complex structures operating in multiple states, so it’s not always easy for states to truly assess the financial health of institutions,” said Weeden. “But states have a big role to play in that.”

When states discover that colleges might be in financial difficulty, they can ask them to provide education plans, which help students transfer to different institutions to complete their education.

The Department for Education did not respond on Wednesday whether Stratford had provided a teaching plan.

Stratford was working with the University of the Potomac and Chamberlain University, both for-profit organizations, to accept some of the institution’s students, Shurtz said when the closure was announced.

The university was still working to find other institutions for students in certain areas, such as the university’s culinary program. Shurtz did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Virginia State Board of Higher Education provides students with a list of six other establishments to which they can transfer. All but one are for-profit colleges.

A SCHEV spokesperson said Stratford had not been regulated by the agency since 2010. A Virginia law allows private institutions to be exempt from SCHEV oversight once they have been regulated by the agency. agency for two decades.

Maryland Higher Education Commission website says it works with Stratford to gather details of the closure and will post teaching opportunities when the information becomes available.

The Stratford campus in Baltimore is already set to be converted into apartments, the Baltimore Business Journal reported. A local developer said he bought the site from the university in May 2021 for nearly $3 million.

Pre-existing teaching plans can make closings much more orderly, Weeden said.

“Even if an institution closes,” Weeden said, “it’s not just like, ‘We’re closing. Good luck.'”

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