A defunct online college has brought to Chicago federal court its lawsuit against an accreditation agency it says made the college a “sacrificial lamb” to prove to Congress that the agency had not become lax in accrediting nontraditional institutions. 

Case No. 16-cv-11726 was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. The same case was filed in federal court in California in 2015, but was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction because the defendant, Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission, has little if any connection to the western state where the plaintiff, Ivy Bridge University, is based. 

Ivy Bridge partnered in 2007 with Tiffin University, an accredited Ohio-based university with a nearly 130-year history, to create Ivy Bridge of Tiffin. The online associate’s degree program in which Tiffin faculty taught Tiffin curricula through Ivy Bridge’s online platform. 

According to the lawsuit, the partnership was intended to address several high-profile struggles facing higher education, most notably low completion rates. Ivy Bridge never sought accreditation, the lawsuit says, but Higher Learning Commission, or HLC, was aware that Tiffin had created and was managing the program. When HLC performed a routine review of Tiffin in 2010, the lawsuit says the review team had glowing praise for the program, calling it an “excellent strategic initiative” delivering “quality education to a relatively underserved population.” 

Within a couple of years, that attitude allegedly drastically changed. In 2012, HLC began questioning the validity of Ivy Bridge, requiring Tiffin to submit to a lengthy “change of control” process. In 2013, the university was told there were significant issues with the program, including the quality of the course content, and was advised to dissolve Ivy Bridge of Tiffin and cut all ties with Ivy Bridge or risk sanctions that could include losing its own accreditation. 

In its lawsuit, Ivy Bridge claims Tiffin severed the relationship under duress. It claims HLC then interfered with its attempts to establish similar online programs with other universities. Those programs never materialized, the lawsuit says, because the universities were threatened with sanctions. 

Ivy Bridge claims the HLC’s about-face in its assessment of the program was due to a series of scandals in the world of for-profit higher education that first came to light around 2011. There was heavy media coverage of unscrupulous online colleges raking in millions in profits while churning out meaningless degrees, and HLC, along with other accrediting agencies, were called before the U.S. Senate to answer accusations that they had been lax in upholding accreditation standards for nontraditional schools. 

“HLC had already accredited many of the for-profit universities that sprung from the failing traditional schools, and it could not simply revoke that accreditation without fueling the perception that it had previously been lax in its oversight of those institutions,” the suit claims. “HLC had to find the right target to show that it could ‘get tough.’” 

The lawsuit charges HLC with intentional interference with contractual relations and intentional interference with prospective business interests. Ivy Bridge is seeking restitution and damages, including lost profits. The lawsuit does not specify dollar amounts, but does note that Ivy Bridge of Tiffin brought in more than $25 million in 2012. 

Ivy Bridge is represented by Patrick M. Collins, Jade R. Lambert and Jeremy L. Buxbaum of Perkins Coie LLP, of Chicago.

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