Mr. Barling’s Education: How an Ashford U. Exec Called Attention To Bad Press

By Rick Rogers
Defensetracker.com

Went to a meeting of Southern California military family advocates at the Bridgepoint education complex in San Diego last week.

These are meet and greets with strong coffee and salt of earth people. But newsworthy they are not.

Usually.

Then up steps Doug Barling, the senior director of military relations for Ashford University, a for-profit school. Bridgepoint Education is Ashford University’s parent company.

Readers of this column know my mixed feelings about predominately online schools, especially where veterans are concerned.

Among my worries:

* High default rates

* High costs

* Low graduation rates

* Debatable educational quality

* Poor socialization environment

But I can see how online schools could have a place in higher education.

I spend hours online daily educating myself on topics; and if it works for me, then why not for students?

Anyway, I left my personal reservations at the elevator door as I walked into the conference room at Ashford University.

I was there to attend the meeting not to report on Bridgepoint or Ashford.

So, up steps Barling. I figured as the host he’d offer a few perfunctory remarks and wish us well.

Instead, the first thing he said, “There is a lot of information out there that is not very favorable.”

Then he launched into a diatribe about the unfairness of his school being under constant government scrutiny, including for poor graduation figures.

“Unfortunately, we are being investigated by state attorney generals all the time and they have never found anything.”

“We don’t target veterans at all … We are the good guys,” he said.

“It’s not about making money,” Barling said of the roughly 70 military bases on which Ashford keeps office hours.

And then this: Duty, honor, country – education is a distant fourth in the Marine Corps.

Then he mentioned an unflatteringly 2009 story about Ashford University concerning Camp Lejeune.

Barling promised to set the record straight about Camp Lejeune without ever detailing the alleged infraction.

If this sounds a bit jumbled and a tad inappropriate given the setting, then you have some idea of what it was like to sit through.

Note to Barling: Don’t bring up bad press that no one knows about.

After this, I had to check into these claims.

The Camp Lejeune thing?

Seems a Bloomberg reporter wrote that an Ashford recruiter signed up a brain-injured Marine in the wounded warrior barracks for classes that the Marine can’t remember signing up for. Such recruiting is not supposed to happen there for obvious reasons.

I asked Doug Barling for his explanation and got an email saying the PR department had my request.

Concerning investigations?

In May 2008, the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General audited Ashford University for the period March 2005 through June 2009.

Its findings:

* Ashford University failed to return an estimated $1 million in federal aid awarded to students who later withdrew

* The school may have violated a federal ban on incentive compensation for college recruiters

* It took too long to return money awarded to students who withdrew or went on leaves of absence

* Kept credit balances without the proper authorization

* Disbursed aid before students were eligible to receive the money

In March 2011, Sen. Tom Harkin chaired a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that examined Bridgepoint.

According to information provided by Harkin, 63 percent of students enrolling at Ashford in the 2008-2009 school year withdrew before completing their course work.

Harkin pointed out that Bridgepoint made more than $216 million in profits in 2010 and that 86.5 percent of its revenues come from federal funds.

Of Bridgepoint’s heavy reliance on public money, Harkin was quoted as calling it “an absolute scam.”

Kathleen Tighe, Inspector General of the Department of Education, testified at the hearing that the Ashford audit revealed the school had improperly distributed student aid.

“Seventy-five percent of the improper disbursements to students in our sample were made to students who never became eligible,” Tighe said.

Tighe said at the time that Bridgepoint was “sitting on $130 million” in these types of funds.

Mr. Barling, if you didn’t speak, I would never have discovered this information – online, no less — about Ashford University and Bridgepoint Education.

Let me tell you in case you don’t hear it enough from your students: Thanks for the education.

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