March 23, 2018
The Honorable Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
711 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510
The Honorable Margaret Wood Hassan
United States Senator
330 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510
I write today in response to your letter dated March 15, 2018. I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight about Ashford University’s longstanding commitment and service to its students, including military service members and student veterans.
Since its founding, Ashford has demonstrated fidelity to the central tenets of its mission: providing affordable and accessible higher education that produces strong learning outcomes and fosters student success. This has included a commitment to educating our nation’s heroes and designing learning environments tailored to the unique needs of every student -- whether an active duty service member, reservist, veteran, or a family member.
I am concerned you may not have had all of the facts at your disposal regarding the VA’s actions with respect to Ashford before sending your letter.
Ashford University is, and always has been, in compliance with VA requirements, as evidenced by its continuous positive compliance surveys. The VA has never contended otherwise—the only issue the VA has ever raised is the technical question of whether Ashford should receive its approval to participate in the GI Bill program from one state rather than another. The quality and value of Ashford’s academic programs available to military service members and student veterans remains unquestioned. Ashford participates in the GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Education Enhancement Program, has signed and operates under the Department of Defense MOU, and adheres to the standards set forth in the 8 keys to Veterans Success criteria.
Moreover, Ashford does have proper state-level approvals. Through the GI Bill, Congress placed authority to oversee and to approve educational programs with the states. By law and rule, the VA is prohibited from supervising, controlling, or interfering with that authority. 38 U.S.C. § 3682; 38 C.F.R. § 21.4152(a). Yet, for more than two years, the VA has injected itself into state approving decisions related to Ashford in Iowa and Arizona, apparently based on an interpretation of the current regulations regarding jurisdictional authority for online institutions that VA has never put out for notice and comment and never even publicized until after it declared that Ashford was out of compliance and should be sanctioned. Indeed, one VA officer has conceded that even under that unpublished standard, “ascertaining the location of an education institution can be complicated, potentially more so for a course offered online.”
For ten consecutive years, the Iowa Department of Education (IDOE) had approved Ashford’s veteran student programs for GI Bill benefits. In 2016, that abruptly changed. Two months after IDOE had approved Ashford’s eligibility, the VA pressured IDOE to announce its intention to withdraw its approval of Ashford, because the university had transitioned from a traditional residential campus to a primarily online model. IDOE’s announced intention to withdraw approval threatened the educational prospects of veteran students, and Ashford sued to block the withdrawal. While resolution of this matter is still pending in the Iowa courts, Ashford University continues to be approved by IDOE.
To protect its students’ access to benefits, last summer, Ashford applied for and received approval from the Arizona Department of Veterans Services (ADVS). Ashford applied in Arizona because Ashford’s Online Administrative and Student Services Center, which handles the administration of VA benefits, is based in Phoenix. As part of the application process, ADVS reviewed Ashford’s curriculum, records, and physical facilities, and concluded that Ashford met all relevant standards for approval. VA moved quickly to interfere with that approval as well, informing Ashford in November that ADVS had provided insufficient evidence to establish jurisdictional authority over Ashford’s online programs, despite having taken all appropriate actions and followed correct procedures, and alleged that the university was not in compliance because of an issue with the terminology of “main campus.” ADVS has rejected VA’s interpretation of ADVS’s jurisdiction. Ashford thus continues to be approved by ADVS and certifies veteran students under the facility code assigned by the VA.
In both Iowa and Arizona, the VA’s actions constituted unprecedented federal encroachment into the authority of states, as affirmed by Congress, to determine GI Bill benefit eligibility.
In November 2017, the VA sought to overrule ADVS’s determination that Ashford is properly approved in Arizona. Ashford filed a petition in Federal Court challenging that action. Subsequently, the VA voluntarily agreed to stay its efforts to suspend GI Bill eligibility for Ashford students until the Federal Circuit could reach a final decision. The stay was conditioned on Ashford’s agreement to submit an application for approval from the California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education (CSAAVE). We did that. In February, CSAAVE said it would not act on Ashford’s application and referred the matter back to the VA.
It has always been and it remains Ashford’s desire to work with the VA to achieve Ashford and the VA’s mutual goal of affording Ashford’s veteran students a high-quality education using the GI Bill benefits for which they have worked so hard and have sacrificed so much. At every turn, we have done what the VA has asked, with the goal of ensuring that there would be no disruption of educational benefits to our veteran students. In fact, more than 5,000 veterans, military service members, students, and supporters signed a recent online petition urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to allow veterans to choose Ashford to achieve their academic goals.
The uncertainty created by the VA’s actions led Ashford to suspend new enrollments of veteran students voluntarily a few months ago until such time as a thorough analysis of the situation could be completed. As the university is currently approved in both Iowa and Arizona, and in response to overwhelming inquiries from veterans interested in pursuing their academic programs at Ashford, we once again began accepting their applications, supporting their choice to decide their educational path forward. I believe their interest in Ashford is a reflection, in large
part, of the work of a dedicated team of faculty and staff committed to their needs. Their selection of Ashford has empowered the university’s leadership to endure in its quest to protect their rights to choose the academic institution they believe best suits their needs. We are proud and honored to do so, and we are confident that Ashford will prevail in the litigation that the VA’s actions made unavoidable.
In the words of one graduate, Ty Smith, a 20-year veteran and former Navy Seal, who said “word of mouth” led him to choose Ashford, “My education was rigorous, challenging, and applicable in real life.” I believe Ty’s sentiments are representative of those of other Ashford students and graduates. For Ty and so many others, I felt compelled to respond to your letter.
President and CEO