Shuttered Online School Sues Accreditor

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An online junior college sued the accrediting commission that shut it down two years ago, claiming the Higher Learning Commission closed it because of a “political agenda.”
     Ivy Bridge University fka Ivy Bridge College sued the Illinois-based Higher Learning Commission on May 14 in Federal Court.
     It claims the commission shut it down because of a politically motivated reaction to growing disfavor with online schools.
     Ivy Bridge claims that despite its “incredible success,” it was “forced out of business by defendant HLC because Ivy Bridge did not fit within HLC’s political agenda.”
     Ivy Bridge was founded in 2008 in a joint venture between Tiffin University, a small private school in Ohio, and Silicon-Valley based technology company Altius Education. It calls itself an educational experiment to offer low-income, working adults access to affordable, quality education. With Tiffin’s backing, students could earn an associate’s degree online that they could use to transfer to a four-year university
     Using Altius’ software platform Helix, Ivy Bridge says, it initially enjoyed great success. In 2012, it boasted a reported enrollment of 2,000 students and Altius received a $300,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to put all of Ivy Bridge’s courses on the Helix online portal.
     But in 2013, classes were discontinued after Higher Learning Commission ordered a stop to the Ivy Bridge program, amid public and legislative outcry over money-grubbing for-profit junior colleges.
     Ivy Bridge claims the commission grew nervous at the program’s plans to seek its own accreditation.
     “HLC had already accredited many of the for-profit universities that sprung from the failing traditional schools. It could not simply revoke that accreditation. Instead, it had to find a new target to show that it could ‘get tough.’ That is where Ivy Bridge came in. It was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the complaint states.
     Though the commission’s 10-year review of Tiffin in 2010 offered glowing praise for the Ivy Bridge program, a 2013 report from the commission said Ivy Bridge failed to meet accreditation standards, particularly because of its allegedly poor academic performance and Tiffin’s oversight failures.
     “The report was a complete hatchet job,” Ivy Bridge says in the complaint. “The glowing praise from a few years earlier turned into universal disdain. Where the prior review said, for example, that Ivy Bridge had ‘a strong curriculum, efficient and effective academic support, [and] excellent instruction,’ this one said that the Ivy Bridge courses were of ‘poor quality’ and ‘lacking in content.’ Likewise, Tiffin’s once ‘effective utilization’ of alliances like Ivy Bridge turned into a ‘lack of faculty oversight’ and a ‘failure to demonstrate responsibility’ for Ivy Bridge.”
     Tiffin was ordered to sever ties with Altius, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Department of Justice was investigating the university and tech the company for their student loan policies, academics and recruitment.
     According to the complaint, the commission also threatened Tiffin with “crippling sanctions” and possible loss of accreditation if it failed to shut down Ivy Bridge.
     “This was a witch hunt and Ivy Bridge was the victim,” the complaint states.
     Unable to seek independent accreditation, Ivy Bridge tried to partner with two other universities: Concordia University and Ohio Christian University. But the commission got to them first and threatened sanctions and both schools backed out, Ivy Bridge said.
     HLC spokesman John Hausaman said the commission had no comment.
     Ivy Bridge seeks restitution and punitive damages for breach of contract, interference with contract and prospective business interests, and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law.
     It is represented by Brian Hennessey with Perkins Coie in Palo Alto, who did not respond to a request for comment.

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