Ashford University in Iowa

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is seeking a large batch of records from San Diego-based Bridgepoint Education and the two colleges it operates, Ashford University in Iowa and the University of the Rockies in Colorado. (Ashford University)

As part of a wider investigation into for-profit and online colleges, the California attorney general on Wednesday moved to obtain potential evidence about the telemarketing, enrollment and financial practices of two schools owned by a San Diego company.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris asked a Superior Court in Sacramento to enforce a previous subpoena seeking a large batch of records from the Bridgepoint Education company and the two colleges it operates, Ashford University in Iowa and the University of the Rockies in Colorado. The two schools enroll about 80,000 students nationwide, overwhelmingly in online classes, the court petition said.

The goal is “to evaluate whether Bridgepoint has violated California law by making false or misleading statements to Californians during telephone calls, including telemarketing calls, and through other sales and marketing efforts,” the court filing said.

Bridgepoint Education spokeswoman Marianne Perez said in an email that the company would have no comment about the court action.

The company was served in January with a subpoena that seeks, among other things, large amounts of recorded conversations between recruiters and potential students. The company has handed over only a small portion of the materials, Harris said in the court document.

Bridgepoint has said that it “would be unduly burdensome” to comply, would invade students’ privacy and cause a “public relations disaster,” according to the attorney general’s court petition.

Officials at the attorney general’s office said Wednesday's action was part of a wider probe into “troubling practices” of some for-profit colleges and that they were investigating possible misrepresentations about school costs, debt, academic credits and how long it takes to earn a degree. But they declined to specify which schools were being investigated and when any possible disciplinary action might occur.

In 2005, Bridgepoint acquired “a financially strapped small college” in Iowa called Franciscan University of the Prairies and renamed it Ashford University, according to the court filing. Ashford offers a wide array of undergraduate and graduate degrees and retained the older regional accreditation from Franciscan. In 2007, Bridgepoint acquired the Colorado School of Professional Psychology and renamed it University of the Rockies, which offers graduate degrees in psychology and social services.

Last summer, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges rejected Ashford’s application for California-based accreditation, saying the school lacked enough full-time faculty and that its dropout rate was too high, among other issues. However, the school appealed and recently won initial WASC accreditation and a commendation from the agency that said Ashford was transforming itself “from a market-driven enterprise to a university committed to student retention and success.”

In 2011, a U.S. Department of Education audit found irregularities in how Ashford paid its enrollment advisors with incentives to recruit more students and mishandled financial aid refunds. The school denied the allegations.  

Last year, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) released a detailed report on the business practices of education companies and alleged that Bridgepoint in 2010 spent an inordinate amount on marketing and had low completion rates by students seeking associate degrees.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

Twitter: @larrygordonlat