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Education Company Sues The Accreditor That Put It Out Of Business

Almost two years after Ivy Bridge College closed its doors, it's heading toward the courtroom.

Posted on May 14, 2015, at 11:00 p.m. ET

Tiffin University / Via

Almost two years after a dispute with a prominent accrediting body abruptly put its innovative college partnership out of business, Ivy Bridge Education has decided it's time to strike back.

The education company filed suit today against the Higher Learning Commission, alleging that the accreditor illegally "strong-armed" the closure of Ivy Bridge College as part of a "witch hunt" against nontraditional higher education. The suit seeks unspecified damages against the Higher Learning Commission, which is one of six regional corporations given the authority to accredit colleges nationwide, determining their accessibility for federal financial aid.

Ivy Bridge College was set up as a partnership between Ivy Bridge, then known as Altius Education, and the nonprofit Tiffin University. It was conceived to serve nontraditional students with low-cost, two-year degrees delivered entirely online. It was an unusual partnership, targeting a demographic — two-year degree students, many of them older — that was traditionally served by community colleges and for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix. Though it had just 3,000 students, Ivy Bridge had partnered with hundreds of traditional colleges and had ambitious plans to spread nationwide.

It was initially successful by most measures: 65% of its students graduated or transferred to a partner college, Ivy Bridge said, compared to 28% at peer institutions. But the Higher Learning Commission compelled Tiffin to withdraw from the Ivy Bridge partnership, citing a complex web of technicalities about the school's accreditation and the for-profit company's relationship with the university. The commission's actions put Ivy Bridge Education, which said it had invested $10 million into the venture, out of business.

That was back in 2013. Paul Freedman, Ivy Bridge's founder, said he believes the climate has now shifted in favor of many of the reforms that Ivy Bridge was attempting to pioneer, making it the right time to file suit against the Higher Learning Commission. He hopes, he said, to recover some of the money that Ivy Bridge put into the school, as well as to win punitive damages.

In the years since Ivy Bridge shut down, more and more schools, Freedman said, are experimenting with partnerships with for-profit companies, such as the one that formed the colleges, and with the kinds of nontraditional education that Ivy Bridge championed, like all-online degrees and so-called competency-based learning.

"Everything that's happened since we shut down has moved towards the kind of innovations we were doing," said Freedman. "We were a new and innovative program, and we understand the scrutiny, but evidence now demonstrates that shutting us down was a rush to judgment."

The Higher Learning Commission said it shut down Ivy Bridge because of concerns both about the quality of the school's degrees — though it had praised them two years before, in a separate review — and inadequate oversight on the part of Tiffin. The HLC said Tiffin had simply lent its name, and thus its accreditation, to Freedman's for-profit company.

The past few years have seen a surge of ventures that bear some resemblance to Ivy Bridge’s. Arizona State University, for example, launched its massive ASU Online through a partnership with the giant education company Pearson, and last month announced a partnership with EdX, an online education nonprofit, to reinvent the freshman year as a completely open online course. 2U Inc., a publicly traded company, runs online degrees in partnerships with nonprofit schools like the University of North Carolina.

A venture-backed startup called Quad Learning has turned its attention to the same set of students that Ivy Bridge once hoped to serve with a program called American Honors, which runs honors programs at community colleges with an eye toward transferring credits.

Even if Ivy Bridge’s suit is successful, Freedman said he is unsure about the future of the company, which has lain dormant since the college's closure. "We'd love to see the mission resumed in some form," he said. "There's been a lot of exciting stuff in education lately, but a lot of it's been focused on affluent students. We still haven't figured out how to innovate in a way that expands access in a high-quality way, which is what Ivy Bridge was trying to do."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.