For students, for profit, or for both?; Dallas firm’s tactics spur debate over buying accreditation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For a newborn college, the road to respectability runs through accreditation. It can take a school up to a decade to earn the nation’s official mark of quality.

But last year some Dallas investors, keen to quickly launch a profitable revolution in higher education, found a shortcut to accreditation.

They bought it.

Whether that was a legitimate purchase is hotly debated. But there’s no question that the new school embodies the tensions between traditional academic values and a new movement toward no-frills, assembly-line for-profit education that claims it can be both cheaper and better.

The American College of Education – whose leaders include former Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige – bought a dying Catholic school in suburban Chicago named Barat College.

ACE didn’t buy Barat’s campus. It didn’t keep any of Barat’s professors or students. It isn’t legally allowed to use Barat’s name, and ACE isn’t using any part of its curriculum. But ACE did buy Barat’s accreditation with the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

So far, North Central has agreed to let ACE keep it. When ACE held its first classes in Chicago last October – with no campus and a faculty that commuted from Dallas – it was every bit as accredited as Harvard and Yale.

North Central’s directory of schools even lists ACE as being accredited since 1943 – even though the school didn’t exist until 2005.

Some in academia have cried foul. A member of the American Association of University Professors committee that watches over accreditation issues said the situation “sickened” her.

“It really bothers me that you have someone essentially buying an institution in name only. It’s a shell game,” said Denise Tanguay, an associate dean at Eastern Michigan University. “It’s the people who make up the quality of an institution; it’s not the name or a piece of paper. … If all of the folks who staffed Barat College are now gone, then you don’t have anything left to accredit.”

ACE’s leaders say they’re rewriting the rules, not breaking them. Their goal is to create the country’s first national college of education. They want to supplant the education-school establishment, injecting business values of efficiency and profitability into what they see as the expensive and fuzzy-headed schools that produce America’s teachers and principals.

Its first effort is in Chicago, but it hopes to open programs from coast to coast by this fall, featuring a standardized curriculum and tuition that will eventually drop to a small fraction of its competition’s. Accreditation is a vital part of that plan, because it opens the legal doors to expansion, gives credibility to the fledgling enterprise, and allows ACE’s students to receive federal financial aid.

ACE’s founder, Dallas businessman Randy Best, argues it was legitimate to keep Barat’s accreditation, partly because the college had to meet other academic and financial requirements and partly because it shares some of Barat’s philosophy.

“We didn’t want to be a brand-new college of education,” he said. “We wanted a history. We wanted to be a continuation of a tradition. Whether that was right or wrong, that was very much in our minds.”

But ACE’s claim to Barat’s history has angered some of the old college’s loyalists – not to mention those who believe ACE should have to earn its accreditation the traditional way.

“I find it fraudulent and crassly misleading,” Sister Sally Furay, a former Barat College board member, law professor and member of the religious order that founded Barat in 1858, wrote in response to questions from The News. “If ACE wants to adopt some of the same values [as Barat], advocated by numerous good institutions, that is their prerogative. But it is false and deceptive to claim a nonexistent connection to Barat College.”

The Barat deal looks much less controversial to investment experts.

“From a business perspective, it’s a pretty logical approach, a ‘buy rather than build’ approach,” said Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst at Eduventures, which tracks the for-profit education market. “If it’s going to take a couple years to get accreditation, those years are very valuable from an investment perspective.”

Founder’s vision

Mr. Best, ACE’s founder, is best known in education circles for his last company, Voyager Expanded Learning, which sells a phonics-based reading curriculum to public schools. Mr. Best sold it to a Michigan company last year for $361 million.

His new idea is to build the first truly national college of education, training teachers and principals across the country. Today’s teachers aren’t being taught key practical and research-based methods for reaching children, he said. Mr. Best said he wants to cut the cost of teacher training by about 80 percent, by standardizing the curriculum and replacing some in-person class time with online education.

“I believe that public education has to take responsibility itself for its instructional quality,” he said. “To me, that means that public school districts need to act as colleges of education. I want to be their supplier.”

He hopes to link ACE with the other education businesses he is launching: a chain of global for-profit universities and a college-level curriculum he hopes to sell to high schools.

ACE has assembled an all-star group of educators for the effort. Dr. Moses came on board not long after resigning as Dallas ISD’s superintendent in August 2004.

“If you look back in the mid-’90s, a lot of people were asking the private sector to become more interested in education,” Dr. Moses said. “And so you saw a lot of people step up – textbook companies, technology companies, a lot of literacy companies, including Voyager. I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Mr. Best also brought in Mr. Paige, the former Houston superintendent and education secretary, to be a board member and a senior adviser. Other board members included a former commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, a former Houston school board president, and a senior vice president of the testing company ACT.

From the start, the company’s leadership team had big dreams: programs all around the country, online learning, contracting with school districts to improve their professional development programs. But ACE needed a place to start.

That ended up being the remains of a dying college in suburban Chicago.

Barat College (pronounced BERR-uh) was founded in 1858 as an academy for young women by the Society of the Sacred Heart, an order of Catholic nuns. It expanded to a four-year college in 1919 and was named for the order’s since-sainted founder, Madeleine Sophie Barat.

The college trained generations of young women in the liberal arts, including many who went on to become teachers. As a Catholic institution, it had a strong focus on issues of social justice and serving the poor. It was heavily influenced by Bernard Sheil, the controversial Chicago archbishop who was an outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized.

Barat produced a number of notable alumnae, including the first female mayor of Chicago, but its history was not always happy. Enrollment was often below 1,000 students, and financial difficulties were common. It switched to a nonreligious board of directors and started accepting men as students, but money was always short.

In 2001, Barat merged itself into the DePaul University system of campuses, the largest Catholic university in America.

DePaul invested millions in improving Barat’s campus and building new academic programs. But enrollment did not increase as much as hoped, and in February 2004, DePaul’s board voted to close Barat the following spring and sell its assets.

Striking a deal

More than a dozen organizations expressed interest, including Mr. Best’s Dallas start-up. Negotiations ensued, and in March 2005, DePaul announced that a deal had been struck. Both sides have declined to disclose the terms, but according to public records filed with the state of Illinois, DePaul became a part owner of ACE in the transaction.

“They had the resources to be successful,” DePaul spokeswoman Denise Mattson said. “They had people, an expert team, and the finances to succeed, where some others had more of an idea and the promise or hope of success.”

What exactly did ACE purchase? It bought Barat’s 15,000-volume library – about a third the size of a small Dallas branch library – and some computer equipment. But it kept only one Barat employee: the college’s librarian.

It also did not purchase the campus, which was later sold separately to a housing developer. Mr. Best said the fact that he did not have to buy Barat’s campus was one of the biggest reasons ACE bought it instead of some other college.

Most important, the sale included “permits and other authorizations by or of governmental authorities, education agencies, or other third parties,” including its accreditation.

Accreditation is extremely valuable to a for-profit college. For example, Texas law does not allow out-of-state colleges to expand to Texas unless they are accredited. ACE hopes to start operations in Texas this fall. If it had had to go through the normal accreditation process – which commonly takes four years or more – such an expansion could have been delayed several years.

Former Barat officials and employees said the Barat tradition is more than shelves of library books and a few permits.

“ACE has had no relationship with the real educational business of Barat College: its faculty, its students, its broad liberal arts curriculum, its spiritual roots, and the long Catholic heritage, all of which made Barat College what it was,” Sister Furay wrote. “ACE has no genuine link with this heritage.”

Dr. Tanguay, the Eastern Michigan dean, said she believes accreditation should not be passed along as an asset. “They should be starting from scratch,” she said.

In Barat’s footsteps?

But ACE officials say they are serving as guardians of Barat’s mission. Dr. Moses points out that the education department was Barat’s largest and that it offered master’s degrees in education. At the moment, ACE’s only academic program is a master’s degree program in education, in which 25 Chicago public-school teachers are currently enrolled.

“It’s a continuation of the Barat mission,” said Dr. Moses, who now chairs ACE’s board and served for a time as its CEO. “Their mission was to serve urban and suburban students in the field of education, and other offerings as well. We’re a continuation.”

Within two years, ACE officials say, they hope to add programs in business and computer science, which were also popular offerings at Barat. It hopes to eventually add bachelor’s degrees, too.

And as ACE hires more professors based in Chicago – rather than those who commute from Dallas, as most have so far – it may hire some former Barat faculty, said ACE spokeswoman Rena Pederson, a former editor at The News.

“We were very interested in a number of things that Barat College provides – the tradition, the mission,” said Joe May, ACE’s vice president for administrative services. “Our agreement was that we would pick up where Barat had ended, and that’s exactly what we did. We’ll be putting our own stamp on it.”

At least one former top Barat official has no problem with ACE’s actions. The Rev. Edward Udovic was president at Barat at the time of the ACE sale. He said that while former Barat officials may have emotional attachments to the old school, the sale of assets to ACE was appropriate. “There is a distinction between Barat College and Barat Campus, and DePaul divested them as separate entities, even though some people with an historic connection to the campus do not separate the two,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Best said he would have liked to purchase one other part of Barat: its name. Despite the pronunciation problems it poses, “We thought it was a neat name. It would have been perfect to use the name in our name,” perhaps as the Barat American College of Education. But a group of alumni and supporters did not want the name to be sold.

After reviewing some of ACE’s promotional material – in which it says it “will embrace and build on the history of Barat College” – the American head of the Society of the Sacred Heart issued a statement wishing ACE no ill.

“Certainly, if the American College of Education provides prospective teachers with a quality education deeply rooted in spiritual values, we would wish them well,” wrote Sister Kathleen Conan, the religious order’s provincial based in St. Louis.

“But we would want them to do it in their name, not in ours.”

Regional accreditor

For colleges in Illinois, the regional accreditor is the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, specifically its Higher Learning Commission. North Central’s policies allow a college’s accreditation to be passed to a new owner if a number of criteria are met, including “that the academic programs will continue” and “that the institutional mission remains unchanged.”

“I think we’re looking for the spirit of the mission as much as the technical aspects of it,” said Karen Solinski, the accreditor’s assistant director for legal and governmental affairs. She said that ACE’s interest in teacher training matches up with Barat’s, even if the programs are not identical.

“The fact that they don’t have the exact same courses, that’s immaterial,” said North Central associate director Robert Appleson. “That’s getting into micromanagement.”

Steven Crow, North Central’s executive director, said that ACE’s current offerings are close enough to Barat’s – “A master’s of education is a master’s of education,” he said – to allow ACE to avoid the standard process. “The decision to transfer the accreditation was a reasonable decision,” he said.

ACE officials say critics are off base. “Nothing could be further from the truth than to say we purchased the accreditation,” Ms. Pederson said. She noted that ACE still had to submit a large number of documents to verify its financial stability, its governance structure and the quality of its academic programs.

“That is an excruciating process,” Mr. Best said. “I bet you we prepared a book 3, 4 inches thick.”

ACE officials also had to undergo a site visit by a North Central team in February. That team recommended approving the transfer of Barat’s accreditation to ACE. That transfer must still be formally approved by North Central’s board, but Dr. Crow said he is “confident they will validate it.”

Ms. Solinski acknowledged that, had ACE not bought Barat’s assets but otherwise launched in exactly the same manner, it would be facing a multiyear wait for accreditation. “If it were a brand-new institution, it would be starting from scratch,” she said. “But that isn’t what happened.”

However, that’s how Illinois regulators see ACE.

All Illinois colleges must seek approval from the state’s Board of Higher Education to enroll students or grant degrees. When ACE bought Barat, it attempted to use Barat’s old state approvals. But state officials determined that ACE was not substantially continuing Barat College.

“As you are aware, we are treating this application as a request for a brand new institution in Illinois,” wrote S. Lynn Murphy, the board’s senior associate director, in an e-mail to ACE officials. “Continued references to Barat will only confuse things and raise additional questions.”

In the end, ACE had to apply on its own for operating authority, which was granted last summer. Gary Alexander, Dr. Murphy’s boss, said that ACE looks like a solid addition to the Illinois college market.

“They dealt with us very straightforwardly, and the quality of their product looks good,” he said. “We hope they can do the job.” But ACE had to go through the same state approval process other new colleges do.

When asked what Illinois regulators thought of North Central’s decision to let ACE keep Barat’s accreditation, Dr. Alexander said: “We were surprised at that. That’s as discreetly as I’ll put it.”

Bernard Ricca, an education professor at Barat until its closure, doesn’t blame DePaul or ACE for the accreditation dispute. “It really seems that DePaul had the legal right to do what they did, but it seems to me that North Central didn’t do their job,” he said. “Not based on whether ACE is good, bad or indifferent, because I don’t know. But there’s a problem with the process.”

College without doors

Just like Illinois, Texas requires colleges to seek state approval before opening their doors in the state. But Mr. Best said he believes he has found a way to deal with that rule: Just don’t have any doors.

ACE has not yet applied for operating authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a process that takes at least several months. But it wants to be able to start work in several rural Texas school districts this fall.

Mr. Best said ACE would legally be able to train Texas teachers without state approval as long as none of its instructors were physically in the state. Instead, they could be beamed over the Internet. That would mean ACE qualifies as a “distance learning” program under Texas law, which he said does not require state operating approval.

“The professor is there, but they’re online,” he said. “It could be live. But they aren’t in the state.”

To navigate the thickets of authorizations and accreditations, ACE recently hired a top lawyer from the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix. “This is a new world to me,” Mr. Best said.

But David Linkletter, a program specialist at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said he isn’t sure what Mr. Best describes would pass legal muster. And Dr. Crow at North Central said that ACE would need to seek a separate approval from his agency to offer distance-learning classes or to expand outside Illinois.

No matter where ACE expands, Barat loyalists say they’re upset with what the company has done in their small Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. Sheila Smith, a businesswoman who formerly chaired Barat’s board of trustees, now leads the Barat Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to continue Barat’s legacy by funding scholarships, women’s leadership programs and other efforts.

She said she is not opposed to for-profit education; for a time she actually tried to get her foundation to partner with a different for-profit college, Corinthian, to buy back Barat from DePaul.

But she said she finds it offensive that ACE is promoting its ties to Barat.

“I don’t think they are interested in Barat’s values,” she said. “I think they’re just in the education business. And that’s different.”