Lawsuits Haunt Chandler-based University of Arizona Global Campus Partner Zovio

Kim Lee always imagined a gold tassel bobbing from a black graduation cap as she crossed an auditorium stage to earn her criminal justice degree, surrounded by family and friends.

As graduation from Ashford University in 2020 approached, a rich new chapter of life opened up for the 34-year-old mother of two, she thought.

She was wrong.

The new chapter became hell for the battered but resilient veteran of the United States Armed Forces.

She was cheated by her own alma mater and too disgusted to even attend a virtual graduation in October 2020. After all, the university held onto her diploma for ransom, she thought.

It was nothing new to Lee.

“They were constantly harassing me,” she said.

The for-profit university in San Diego, overseen by a metro Phoenix company, has been the subject of legal scrutiny since Lee was a teenager.

The institution lost its last lawsuit as Ashford University this month. It is now part of the new University of Arizona Global Campus, which is located near East Chandler Boulevard and South Arizona Avenue.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed suit in 2017 against the university operated by Chandler-based education services company Zovio, Inc.

Ashford denied the fraud allegations, calling the case a political hit.

“The company strongly denies allegations that it has ever deliberately misled its students, falsely advertised its programs, or was in any way not completely accurate in its statements to investors,” Zovio said in a document filed with the company. US Securities and Exchange Commission.

The trial ended just two weeks ago.

†[Students] earn more than empty promises and mounting debt, but that’s all Ashford University had to offer them,” Bonta said. “I am determined to fight for the students who have been ripped off by this predatory for-profit university and its parent company.”

San Diego County Superior Court judge Eddie C. Sturgeon this month ruled that Ashford University and Zovio were guilty of “giving false information to students about career achievement, study pace and transfer credits, in order to entice them to enroll at Ashford.” “, according to the decision.

The defendants were ordered to repay more than $22 million to students nationwide, such as Lee, an Idaho resident who lives in Indian Land, South Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte.

While Bonta was pursuing his case against the fraudulent school, the University of Arizona dove in and acquired Ashford University in 2020 for just $1.

Zovio, in his deal with UAGC, would pay the school $225 million over 15 years, including $37.5 million as an upfront payment. It also gave the Valley-based company the reins of most day-to-day university activities, such as recruiting, IT and academic support services.

In December 2020, Ashford University became the University of Arizona Global Campus.

“In addition to Zovio’s investment, UAGC has committed its own resources to ensure that Zovio’s increased compliance efforts are not only present, but effective,” promised spokesperson Linda Robertson.

Now Arizona taxpayers are footing the bill to keep the school alive.

“It’s essentially the same school,” Lee said.

Things don’t get much better for students at the University of Arizona Global Campus with Zovio at the helm. It is affiliated with the University of Arizona but operates independently under its own board of directors and president.

Despite the rebrand, “Zovio continues to provide the same deceptive enrollment and marketing services to the University of Arizona Global Campus as it previously provided to Ashford,” Bonta said in a statement.

But Judge Sturgeon said Zovio has “put a lot of time and effort into creating a compliance program to detect and prevent false and misleading statements.”

The university agrees.

“It’s a new day at Zovio with new leadership and the #1 priority for both Zovio and UAGC is doing good by our students,” Robertson said.

Online college and military-affiliated college students go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The stress and unpredictability of lifespan, coupled with family obligations and schedule constraints, make online school an attractive option for military personnel interested in combining an academic or commerce degree with a stint in the military.

That’s especially true of Lee, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Going to school was my only option,” she said.

That’s why Lee decided to enroll at Ashford University. Injured on the job and struggling with her mental health, she felt it was time to put the combat gear down and embark on a career in law enforcement administration.

Veterans rely on courage and decisiveness in combat, but displays of vulnerability are often frowned upon. Back in peacetime civilian life, however, veterans can be consumed by vulnerability, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Veterans are being targeted by predatory schools,” said Jennifer Esparza, the legal director of the bipartisan nonprofit Veterans Education Success in Washington, DC, which referred more than 100 whistleblowers to Bonta for the recent trial.

Esparza was also a student at Ashford University from 2010 to 2013.

“My experience as a student really matches a lot of the complaints we’ve received,” she said.

Poor quality education, misinformation about financial opportunities and harassment tactics added to the tension of a hands-off approach to education for Esparza and more than 100 other students who filed complaints with the old education advocacy group.

“These colleges target minorities and low-income people,” Esparza said. ‘Then they lure them. It’s terrible.”

When the University of Arizona took over Ashford in 2020, Lee was in the middle of her final semester of school. Her tuition nearly doubled from $750 to $1,350 per course to begin with, she said.

For-profit educational institutions like Ashford have a history of abusing and defrauding military students for millions of dollars.

Retail Ready Career Center in Garland, Texas, handed out more than $137 million in restitutions to military-affiliated students last year. Indiana State University Purdue acquired for-profit Kaplan University, which had a record of fraud, to found Purdue Global in 2018.

“For-profit schools advertise as veteran-friendly,” Esparza said. “Some of their programs are not accredited and students may not understand that. They have the ability to really bring these students in on the pretense of being more flexible than a public school, which often isn’t the case.”

I was struggling with PTSD and my mental health at the time, but they continued to harass me. – Kim Lee

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Esparza and Lee took advantage of the GI Bill, a law dating back to World War II that provides financial benefits to inquisitive veterans and active members.

Ashford University promised those benefits would cover the entire cost of tuition — $28,824 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Of course, Lee was stunned when Ashford demanded $6,000 from her upon graduation. She was even more stunned when the university refused to issue her degree until the balance was settled.

“That was after GI Bill and Pell Grants,” she said. “It’s a hardship you don’t want to endure.”

Lee was forced to sell her family’s only car to avoid crippling debt.

Children could not go to school, parents could not work. It wasn’t the life she envisioned when a recruiter from Ashford told her she would be rich after graduation.

“Ashford is unfriendly and useless to military veterans, especially those who have been injured,” army veteran and former student Jenica King told the U.S. Department of Education during a public regulatory hearing last week.

Attorneys general in North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York and Iowa have also investigated fraud and abuse at Ashford University.

“Unfortunately for many Ashford students, they didn’t get the degree they hoped for or the job they thought they would get after graduation,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller after a $7.5 million settlement in 2014. “Which she ended up with a crushing amount of student loans.”

Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin called Ashford, who is not named after a real person, “a scam, an absolute scam.”

He also called the university’s recruitment method “unreasonable.”

Eric Dean, a former recruiter and whistleblower in the recent case against Ashford, described how he was pressured to enroll veterans “no matter what” and keep their enrollment for at least three weeks — at which point they wouldn’t. would qualify for a refund.

Dean said he felt he was “throwing fellow veterans under the bus” by “hanging with them, gaining their trust and abusing their trust.”

After the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau determined in 2016 that Ashford was “engaged in deceptive acts and practices,” Zovio and the federal agency entered into a consent order.

Zovio was ordered to cancel all outstanding private loans and pay a civil fine totaling more than $31 million.

But paying the legal bill wasn’t a problem for Zovio, a publicly traded company that was in possession of cash at the time.

Ashford University has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Chandler-based Zovio since 2005 and once had an enrollment of nearly 80,000 students, court records show.

But only a quarter of full-time students return to the University of Arizona Global Campus after their freshman year, and even fewer graduate.

That’s compared to more than 80 percent at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

“The student believes the school wants the best for him,” Esparza said. “But they’re wrong.”

In October, Zovio reported $62 million in quarterly results at the University of Arizona Global Campus. Three years ago, sales were more than double.

Zovio founder and CEO Andrew Clark left the company last year and received severance pay of more than $3 million.

It may only take 15 student loans to generate that kind of money.

“I currently have about $200,000 in … loans from Ashford and UAGC,” said former college student Jonelle Daugherty. “Although my school has changed name and company ownership twice since I started, the quality of education and neglect of students’ interests has never improved.”

The university rejects this story.

The UAGC’s board of directors continues to focus on promoting a military-friendly institution and is constantly looking for ways to put 16 years of nonstop lawsuits and government inspection in the rearview mirror, executives claim.

“We will continue to do everything in our power to serve those who sacrificed themselves to serve our country,” Robertson said.

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