SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s attorney general has sued an online, for-profit university, alleging officials made false promises to entice students and illegally tried to collect their overdue debt.
The suit filed November 29 by Attorney General Xavier Becerra against San Diego-based Ashford University alleges the school and its publicly traded parent company, Bridgepoint Education Inc., used illegal business practices to deceive and defraud students, nearly three-quarters of whom never graduated.
The suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court says school representatives lied to prospective students over how much financial aid they could get, the costs of attending, how many academic credits from other schools would transfer to Ashford or from Ashford to other institutions, and about Ashford’s ability to prepare students for careers including teaching, medical billing and social work.
It says many of the school’s roughly 40,000 students had low incomes and were unable to pay their tuition and other debts, yet Ashford threatened students and imposed unlawful debt collection fees.
Anna Davison, the school’s vice president of corporate communications and investor relations, said Bridgepoint institutions serve as a model for how online education can better the lives of people who did not, or who were unable to, pursue more traditional avenues to degrees.
She said Ashford has improved the lives of thousands of students “by providing a high-quality education that serves communities and gives families the opportunity to succeed.”
The school will fight the lawsuit, Davison wrote.
The lawsuit is just the latest to allege aggressive practices and poor results by for-profit colleges, said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of The Institute for College Access & Success, citing U.S. Senate and other federal investigations. Fewer than 10 percent of students are enrolled in for-profit schools, but they account for about a third of federal student loan defaults.
Becerra said Ashford had stolen the American Dream from its students.
“The last thing you’re expecting is for the institution you’re attending to be unscrupulous and to treat you in ways that disregard what your aspirations are and have everything to do with their aspirations to make money,” he said at a news conference.
Among many instances cited in the lawsuit, a student identified as “R.B.” was repeatedly told he would likely have to take only 10 Ashford classes because of his previous coursework at other schools, only to learn he needed 17 classes, costing him considerably more time and money.
A bachelor’s degree at Ashford is currently expected to cost more than $60,000 including tuition and fees, books and supplies, the suit says, nearly double the cost at San Diego State University or California State University-East Bay, the suit says.
The lawsuit alleges the university used “admissions counselors” who were really salespeople working out of a call center under pressure to meet enrollment targets.
Ashford is also accused of misleading investors and the public in Securities and Exchange Commission filings by overstating the rate of graduates who said that their Ashford degree adequately prepared them for their current job.
The suit asks a judge to reimburse students, impose civil penalties, and bar the school from similar practices in the future.