Commitments and Contingencies
|9 Months Ended
Jan. 31, 2023
|Commitments and Contingencies Disclosure [Abstract]
|Commitments and Contingencies
|Commitments and Contingencies
The Company leases space for its campus and corporate operations. (See Note 8. Leases)
From time to time, the Company enters into employment agreements with certain of its employees. These agreements typically include bonuses, some of which may or may not be performance-based in nature.
From time to time, the Company may be involved in litigation relating to claims arising out of its operations in the normal course of business. As of the date of this Report, except as discussed below, we are not aware of any other pending or threatened lawsuits that could reasonably be expected to have a material effect on the results of our operations, and there are no proceedings in which any of our directors, officers or affiliates, or any registered or beneficial shareholder, is an adverse party or has a material interest adverse to our interest.
On April 6, 2022, Aspen University was served with a class action claim in Arizona Superior Court, alleging violations of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and Unjust Enrichment, based on the class representative’s claims that Aspen University misstated the quality of its pre-licensure nursing program. This complaint was likely in response to the Arizona State Board of Nursing actions against Aspen University relating to the program, as outlined below. At this time, the only action taken by
Aspen University was to file for change of venue which was granted. Aspen University anticipates the completion of a scheduled mediation meeting by the end of June 2023. The size of the potential class action claim is not yet known.
On February 11, 2013, HEMG, and its Chairman, Mr. Patrick Spada, sued the Company, certain senior management members and our directors in state court in New York seeking damages arising principally from (i) allegedly false and misleading statements in the filings with the SEC and the DOE where the Company disclosed that HEMG and Mr. Spada borrowed $2.2 million without board authority, (ii) the alleged breach of an April 2012 agreement whereby the Company had agreed, subject to numerous conditions and time limitations, to purchase certain shares of the Company from HEMG, and (iii) alleged diminution to the value of HEMG’s shares of the Company due to Mr. Spada’s disagreement with certain business transactions the Company engaged in, all with Board approval.
On December 10, 2013, the Company filed a series of counterclaims against HEMG and Mr. Spada in the same state court of New York. By order dated August 4, 2014, the New York court denied HEMG and Spada’s motion to dismiss the fraud counterclaim the Company asserted against them.
In November 2014, the Company and Aspen University sued HEMG seeking to recover sums due under two 2008 Agreements where Aspen University sold course materials to HEMG in exchange for long-term future payments. On September 29, 2015, the Company and Aspen University obtained a default judgment in the amount of $772,793. This default judgment precipitated the bankruptcy petition discussed in the next paragraph.
On July 21, 2021, the bankruptcy trustee paid the Company $498,120 based on assets available in the trust, which is included in "other income (expense), net" in the accompanying consolidated statements of operations. As a result, the Company wrote off the net receivable of $45,329 against the payment received as settlement in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022 and recognized a gain. No further assets are available for distribution.
On September 13, 2022, Spada, the remaining plaintiff, and AGI entered into a Stipulation Discontinuing Action under which the complaint and counterclaims were dismissed with prejudice.
The Company’s subsidiaries, Aspen University and United States University, are subject to extensive regulation by Federal and State governmental agencies and accrediting bodies. In particular, the HEA and the regulations promulgated thereunder by the DOE subject the subsidiaries to significant regulatory scrutiny on the basis of numerous standards that schools must satisfy to participate in the various types of federal student financial assistance programs authorized under Title IV of the HEA.
Aspen University Regulatory Matters
On August 22, 2017, the DOE informed Aspen University of its determination that the institution had qualified to participate under the HEA and the Federal student financial assistance programs (Title IV, HEA programs) and set a subsequent program participation agreement reapplication date of March 31, 2021. On April 16, 2021, the DOE granted provisional certification for a two-year timeframe, and set a subsequent program participation reapplication date of September 30, 2023.
The HEA requires accrediting agencies to review many aspects of an institution's operations in order to ensure that the education offered is of sufficiently high quality to achieve satisfactory outcomes and that the institution is complying with accrediting standards. Failure to demonstrate compliance with accrediting standards may result in the imposition of probation, the requirements to provide periodic reports, the loss of accreditation or other penalties if deficiencies are not remediated.
Because our subsidiaries operate in a highly regulated industry, each may be subject from time to time to audits, investigations, claims of noncompliance or lawsuits by governmental agencies or third parties, which allege statutory violations, regulatory infractions or common law causes of action.
The Company is also subject to regulation by self-regulatory bodies such as accreditors and by state regulators in certain states including states where the Company has a physical presence. Aspen University’s first-time pass rates for our BSN pre-licensure students taking the NCLEX-RN test in Arizona fell from 80% in 2020 to 58% in 2021, which is below the minimum 80% standard set by the Arizona State Board of Nursing (“AZ BON”). As a result of the decline in NCLEX pass rates and other
issues, and in alignment with a recommendation from the Arizona State Board of Nursing, the university voluntarily suspended BSN pre-licensure enrollments and the formation of new cohorts at its two Phoenix pre-licensure locations, effective February 2022. In March 2022, Aspen University entered into a Consent Agreement for Probation and a Civil Penalty (the “Consent Agreement”) with the Arizona State Board of Nursing in which Aspen University’s Provisional Approval was revoked, with the revocation stayed pending Aspen University’s compliance with the terms and conditions of the Consent Agreement. The probationary period is 36 months from the date of the Consent Agreement. In June 2022, the AZ BON granted approval of Aspen University’s request for provisional approval as long as the program is in compliance with the consent agreement through March 31, 2025. The stay was broken into two phases, the first lasting through the end of Calendar Year 2022. During Phase I, Aspen University was not permitted to enroll any new students into the core component of its pre-licensure nursing program in Arizona and must achieve the AZ BON-required 80% NCLEX pass rate for the Calendar Year 2022 annual reporting cycle. If this benchmark was not achieved, the AZ BON could lift the stay and initiate the revocation. If Phase I was completed successfully, Phase II will commence with Aspen University on Probation (regular or “stayed revocation” probation, depending on the outcome of Phase I). Aspen University was permitted to begin enrollments into the core component of its pre-licensure nursing program in Arizona once four consecutive quarters of 80% NCLEX first-time pass rates occur. However, once achieved, if the NCLEX pass rate fell below 80% for any quarter, the AZ BON could limit enrollments, and repeated failures may result in a required cessation of enrollments and teach-out of the program. The terms of the Consent Agreement also include requirements that the Company provide the AZ BON with monthly reports, provide that our faculty and administrators undergo additional training, retain an approved consultant to prepare and submit evaluations to the AZ BON, and hire a minimum of 35% full-time qualified faculty by September 30, 2022.
On September 20, 2022, Aspen University and the Arizona State Board of Nursing entered into a revised Consent Agreement under which Aspen agreed to voluntarily surrender its program approval for its pre-licensure nursing program in Phoenix, Arizona. Aspen sought the agreement after concluding that it was unable to meet the minimum 80% NCLEX first-time pass rates for calendar year 2022, which was a requirement of an earlier consent agreement that Aspen and the Board signed in March 2022. Aspen did so to minimize uncertainty for its students. Aspen had suspended admissions to its Arizona program in January 2022. For the calendar quarters ended March 31, 2022, June 30, 2022 and September 30, 2022, Aspen University's NCLEX-RN test pass rates were 73.33%, 69.64% and 59.15%, respectively.
Under the terms of the revised Consent Agreement, many of the previous requirements were eliminated; for example, Aspen no longer has a requirement to use a consultant nor the requirement for a certain percentage of full-time faculty. However, Aspen will continue its current Arizona Core nursing program for all current students and provide regular reports to the Board of Nursing about the program. It remains accountable to the Board to ensure that its current students receive expected instruction and learning opportunities. Once all currently enrolled students in the program have either completed the program or ceased enrollment, or within two years, whichever is sooner, Aspen’s program approval will be automatically voluntarily surrendered for a minimum period of two years. As expected, although the rate improved from the 2021 rate of 58%, Aspen’s 2022 annual NCLEX-RN first-time pass rate did not meet the Arizona State Board of Nursing’s required pass rate in 2022 at 63.7%.
Having entered into the revised Consent Agreement with the Arizona State Board of Nursing, Aspen suspended new enrollments to its pre-licensure nursing program in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas and will complete instruction for currently enrolled Core nursing students in those states. The state authorizing units and state boards of nursing were noticed to this effect on September 20, 2022.
On February 23, 2023, the Arizona State Board of Nursing informed Aspen of its intent to lift the stay of voluntary surrender at its scheduled March 2023 meeting. Board members expressed concerns regarding public safety and student safeness to practice on exit from the program, including concerns that the program was failing to provide minimum instruction as students were continuing to struggle with passing their NCLEX-RN exam the first time, failing to meet basic standards of educational practice by inadequately ensuring the integrity and proctoring of exams, and improperly using students' work hours to count as clinical hours and counting clinical hours when the students were not in the facilities. Aspen disputed all of these concerns except the one related to the NCLEX-RN first-time pass rate.
It was Aspen’s position that a decision by the Board to conduct such a vote to lift the stay at its scheduled March 2023 meeting would be a breach of the September 2022 Consent Agreement, a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and cause Aspen irreparable harm. The lifting of the stay would have closed the program immediately and affected almost 400 students across four states. On March 23, 2023, Aspen University and the Arizona State Board of Nursing signed an Amendment to the September 2022 Consent Agreement that permits the teach-out of the program to continue with heightened
oversight and reporting. The University will hire a Consultant and additionally an Ombudsperson to oversee critical aspects of the program in Arizona including testing and clinical practices. The signed Amendment means that the Arizona-based students are permitted to be taught out through January 2024, Nashville-based students through May 2024, and Texas- and Florida-based students through September 2024.
On March 8, 2022, Aspen University has also entered into a Stipulated Agreement with the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education which required the University to post a surety bond for $18.3 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022. The Stipulated Agreement required the cessation of enrollment in both the pre-professional nursing and core components of the program in Arizona, the submission of student records monthly, the removal of Arizona start date information from websites and catalogs, and monthly reporting to the Board staff. The collateral for this surety bond of $5 million was included in "Restricted cash" in the consolidated balance sheet at April 30, 2022. On October 31, 2022, Aspen and the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education entered into a revised 2nd Stipulated Agreement that reduces AU's surety bond requirement from $18.3 million to $5.5 million, requires a civil penalty of $12,000 and enrollment stoppage and teach out of the pre-licensure program. Other requirements from the April 2022 Stipulated Agreement were carried forward to this revised agreement. In December 2022, as a result of the revised stipulated agreement with the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education, $1.5 million of the restricted cash associated with the surety bond became unrestricted, providing additional cash for operations.
Aspen University’s State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement ("SARA"), which is overseen by a National Council ("NC-SARA"), annual approval through the Colorado SARA State Portal Entity has to be renewed by January 30 each year. Aspen University applied on January 18, 2022, and received its 2022 approval effective February 8, 2022. On February 23, 2022, Aspen University received a Notification of Provisional SARA Status from the Colorado SARA State Portal Entity. On March 4, 2022, the DOE provided the final approval for Aspen University’s move from Colorado to Arizona. On March 29, 2022, Aspen University received a Notification of Loss of Eligibility for SARA through Colorado which permitted continued SARA coverage for students enrolled for courses between February 1, 2022 and August 2, 2022. On April 10, 2022, Aspen University submitted an official appeal of the eligibility loss to the Colorado SARA State Portal Entity. Aspen University sought a return to the prior provisional status while the appeal was pending or until the completion of the existing SARA term to February 2023 or until there was approval by the Arizona SARA Council. On April 12, 2022, Aspen University was restored to Provisional Status by the Colorado SARA State Portal Entity according to the terms of the February 23, 2022 letter. On May 17, 2022, Aspen University was informed that its appeal was denied and on June 10, 2022, Aspen University received a letter from the Colorado SARA State Portal Entry indicating that students currently enrolled in academic terms in progress as of May 17, 2022, were covered under SARA for 16 weeks, until September 6, 2022.
In the meantime, Aspen University submitted an application to the Arizona State SARA Portal Entry. This application to obtain approval to become an institutional participant again in NC-SARA from its new primary location in Arizona was deferred at the September 8, 2022 and January 19, 2023 meetings, and may again be considered at the September 2023 meeting. Since February 2022, the start of the regulatory concerns over SARA approval, Aspen University has been seeking individual state authorizations for its students. Aspen University has succeeded in securing full approval, exemption, or has determined approval is not required, in 43 states, while 5 additional states allow our currently enrolled students to continue while applications are under review or in process. Students in these states represent over 99% of the current student body.
Aspen believes it has options for the few students in Rhode Island and the District of Columbia but has determined that it will not be able to secure authorization in Maryland. Articulation agreements for students in these two states and the District of Columbia are available for the students who choose not to wait for Aspen University to obtain NC-SARA approval through Arizona.
DOE Program Review
On January 6, 2023, Aspen University received notice from the Department of Education, Office of the Multi-Regional and Foreign Schools Participation Division, that an off-site Program Review would begin on February 13, 2023. The review is designed to assess the University’s administration of the Title IV, HEA programs in which it participates, covering the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 award years. The University is cooperating fully in the review. Required university administrators from the offices of the president, provost, financial aid, finance, enrollment, registrar, institutional research, and student accounts have participated in requested meetings. They have provided requested documentation in a timely manner in a variety of areas, especially related to the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program. The review is ongoing.
Title IV Funding
Aspen University and United States University derive a portion of their revenue from financial aid received by its students under programs authorized by Title IV of the HEA, which are administered by the DOE. When students seek funding from the federal government, they receive loans and grants to fund their education under the following Title IV Programs: (1) the Federal Direct Loan program, or Direct Loan; (2) the Federal Pell Grant program, or Pell; (3) Federal Work Study and (4) Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grants. For the fiscal years ended April 30, 2022, 36.37% of Aspen University’s and 28.06% for United States University's cash-basis revenue for eligible tuition and fees was derived from Title IV Programs.
Return of Title IV Funds
An institution participating in Title IV Programs must correctly calculate the amount of unearned Title IV Program funds that have been disbursed to students who withdraw from their educational programs before completion and must return those unearned funds in a timely manner, no later than 45 days of the date the school determines that the student has withdrawn. Under the DOE regulations, failure to make timely returns of Title IV Program funds for 5% or more of students sampled on the institution's annual compliance audit in either of its two most recently completed fiscal years can result in the institution having to post a letter of credit in an amount equal to 25% of its required Title IV returns during its most recently completed fiscal year. If unearned funds are not properly calculated and returned in a timely manner, an institution is also subject to monetary liabilities or an action to impose a fine or to limit, suspend or terminate its participation in Title IV Programs.
Approval to Confer Degrees
Aspen University is a Delaware corporation and is approved to operate in the State of Delaware. Aspen University is authorized by the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education in the State of Arizona to operate as a degree-granting institution for all degrees. Aspen University is authorized to operate as a degree-granting institution for bachelor degrees by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in the State of Texas. Aspen University has been granted Optional Expedited Authorization as a postsecondary educational institution in Tennessee for its Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program. Aspen University has received a License for its Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program to operate in the state of Florida by the Commission for Independent Education of the Florida Department of Education. United States University is a Delaware corporation and is authorized by the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education to operate as a degree-granting institution for all degrees.