The U of I-Phoenix megadeal clears a key regulatory hurdle

The University of Idaho-University of Phoenix megadeal cleared one regulatory hurdle this month.

Phoenix’s accreditors have signed off on the deal, which would turn the giant for-profit online university into a nonprofit operating under the U of I’s umbrella.

Accreditation is crucial for colleges and universities; for one thing, it ensures students can transfer one school’s credits to another school. And Phoenix has been fully accredited since 1978; the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission granted the university a 10-year renewal earlier this year. But that renewal came before the U of I announced plans to pursue a $685 million acquisition of Phoenix.

As a result, the commission needed to approve a “continuation of accreditation” under Four Three Education, the U of I-formed nonprofit which would finance the purchase and assume oversight of Phoenix.

The commission approved Phoenix’s request on Nov. 2 approval. But U of I President C. Scott Green broke Phoenix’s news Tuesday, in an email to university employees. (A Higher Learning Commission spokesperson confirmed the accreditation decision in an email Wednesday morning.)

“This is great news and a big step closer to finalizing the affiliation,” Green wrote.

But still several big obstacles remain in the path of the purchase.

The U of I still needs the go-ahead from its own accreditors, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

“(We) will meet with them soon to ensure their support,” he wrote.

There is no timeframe for NWCCU to take up the matter, U of I spokeswoman Jodi Walker said late Tuesday.

Green downplayed another obstacle: Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s lawsuit, which accuses the State Board of Education of breaking state law when it met behind closed doors to discuss the Phoenix purchase.

The case will go to trial, likely sometime within the next three months. A district judge has rejected several of Labrador’s complaints. Now, the trial will focus on one question: whether the U of I faced competition from other public bidders as it pursued a Phoenix purchase. The State Board cited competition as justification for the closed-door executive sessions.

Green dismissed the complaint as a “technical question,” adding that the State Board “believes it will prevail on this question as well.”

And if the U of I’s accreditors endorse the deal, and the State Board prevails in court, another big obstacle remains. Four Three would then have to go to the bond market to finance the purchase. U of I officials maintain that Four Three can swing the purchase without any state support, using Phoenix’s revenues to cover bond payments — but U of I could wind up offering up to $10 million a year as a taxpayer-funded backstop, in case Four Three fails to make payments.

The U of I also maintains that the deal could provide the university with $10 million or more in annual funding, gleaned from Phoenix revenues.

The U of I hopes to finalize the complicated, controversial purchase early next year. If a deal is not in place by May 31, either party can walk away.

Like Green, University of Phoenix spokeswoman Andrea Smiley expressed confidence that a deal will be completed.

“University of Idaho and University of Phoenix will continue their work together, and with our regulators, as we work to finalize our agreement,” she said Wednesday. “We are highly confident in our future affiliation and its benefits for our students, staff and faculty, and alumni.”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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