CLINTON, Iowa - The place still looks like a high-end hotel, with natural light pouring in through skylights in the spacious lobby.
That's where Ashford University Vice President and Campus Director John Ballheim is standing as he starts a tour of the former Best Western Frontier Motor Inn hotel at the edge of Clinton, Iowa. Workers are busy there this summer, transforming the facility into overflow dormitories for students attending classes on the small Ashford University campus.
While debate unfolds about for-profit colleges in Washington, D.C., Ballheim laughs as he says he doesn't want to divulge how much the project is costing the university, owned by California-based Bridgepoint.
But he will say Ashford's capital improvement projects on campus and across the city have totaled $25 million over the past three years.
"Would Ashford invest that kind of money if the campus wasn't real?" he said. "We want something real for $25 million."
Calling the university "one of the biggest economic engines in Clinton right now," Ballheim said Ashford had about 80 employees in 2005. Now, it has 550 full-time employees, including the workers at its online call center.
In a city with a population of 27,000, Ashford - located at the campus of the former Mount St. Clare College - probably will draw about 1,000 on-campus students this fall, about 700 more than when Bridgepoint Education purchased the once-struggling campus in 2005.
Formerly known as Mount St. Clare College and The Franciscan University of the Prairies, the campus had just a few hundred students when the private, for-profit Bridgepoint bought it for $9 million from the Sisters of St. Francis.
Now, the campus and the city around it are booming, even though more than 99 percent of its students earn their degrees online, according to Marianne Perez, a spokeswoman for Bridgepoint. She said people can learn more about that online at Bridgepoint's transparency website at bpitransparency.com.
Meanwhile, a study done in 2009 showed Ashford's economic impact on the city was more than $40 million, and that amount has grown significantly over the past two years, Ballheim said.
"By us investing in Clinton, we are attempting to make a really good campus an excellent campus experience for our students," he said. "This is a comprehensive university that has all the education and all the traditions, and we want that."
Some of the other capital projects Ashford has tackled include purchasing the former Clinton Country Club and turning the property into a major sports field, and building a new call center along Mill Creek Parkway.
The college also purchased the former YMCA tennis court facility in the downtown, where the university hopes to improve the entrance with a new vestibule, ramps and street-scaping, he said.
Known around campus as "the B.W.," the old hotel's dorm space will hold 300 beds. The school has 280 dorm beds on campus, and all 580 will be filled this fall, Ballheim said.
"We have many commuter students, too," he said. "This is a very real campus."
Listing off its attributes, Ballheim said the university has 25 majors in four different colleges of study, each led by its own dean. It also has about 55 full-time faculty members and about 40 adjunct teachers.
"Most of the faculty members are fully dedicated to this campus," he said. "If you were here 10 years ago, much of the same faculty are still here. They haven't changed. They're using new technology in the classrooms, but they have the same educational background and the same values."
Ashford also has 17 intercollegiate athletic teams, although the Midwest Collegiate Conference eliminated for-profit colleges from its lineup recently. The school now is looking for "other fits," he said.
"Our goal is that students, the public, parents, anybody who comes on campus can see this is a small, liberal arts campus," he said.
Ashford's class sizes are small; about 15 students per class.
Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox
"That's one of the reasons students come here," he said. "Most people are on a first-name basis here."
College President Elizabeth Tice's office is locked most of the time. She is located in California and visits the Clinton campus maybe twice a year. That doesn't seem to hinder her work there, thanks to technology that allows for easy communication, despite the distance, Ballheim said.
Technology also has affected Ashford's classrooms, where a major overhaul is under way this summer to bring the most state-of-the-art equipment into the instructional space.
In its most high-tech classroom, with a movie-theater-quality sound system and wireless microphone for the instructor, the walls are painted in special whiteboard paint. Anyone can write directly on the walls with dry-erase-board markers and the words can be wiped right off, one of the technology department staff members demonstrates.
Anything on the instructor's computer can be projected onto the whiteboard wall, which then can be touched with a finger and manipulated like a SmartBoard, another explained.
"This is the first class like this, but we're making it standard in all the rest of the classrooms as they are overhauled," Ballheim said.
Meanwhile, a few rooms down in St. Clare Hall, more technology updates are under way to model high-tech classrooms at the University of Iowa.
In other parts of the building, erected in 1910, $750,000 worth of electrical upgrades are in progress, along with other updates in the cafeteria, kitchen and bathrooms.
"I'm a car guy, so I think of it this way: It's like taking a '55 Chevy, disassembling it and putting in a 2011 engine, suspension and steering system," Ballheim said with a laugh. "On the outside, it's still a '55 Chevy, but on the inside, we've got a modern automobile with all the new technology you could possibly get."