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Bad Press For The University Of Phoenix

February 12, 2007

Twice before here I’ve written on the University of Phoenix. The first time was on the institution’s connections to the Mormon church, and the second time was to excerpt an interview with its president, Bill Pepicello. The Pepicello interview generated some vigorous discussion on for-profit versus non-profit higher education.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece on problems with “academic quality” at the University of Phoenix. The article is titled, “Troubles Grow for a University Built on Profits ,” and written by Sam Dillon. I’ll let the following excerpts elaborate further:

– “The University of Phoenix became the nation’s largest private university by delivering high profits to investors and a solid, albeit low-overhead, education to midcareer workers seeking college degrees. But its reputation is fraying as prominent educators, students and some of its own former administrators say the relentless pressure for higher profits, at a university that gets more federal student financial aid than any other, has eroded academic quality.”
– “According to federal statistics and government audits, the university relies more on part-time instructors than all but a few other postsecondary institutions, and its accelerated academic schedule races students through course work in about half the time of traditional universities. The university says that its graduation rate, using the federal standard, is 16 percent, which is among the nation’s lowest, according to Department of Education data.”
– “Many students say they have had infuriating experiences at the university before dropping out, contributing to the poor graduation rate. In recent interviews, current and former students in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington who studied at University of Phoenix campuses in those states or online complained of instructional shortcuts, unqualified professors and recruiting abuses. Many of their comments echoed experiences reported by thousands of other students on consumer Web sites.”
– “It adds up to a damaging turnaround for an institution that rocketed from makeshift origins here in 1976 to become the nation’s largest private university, with 300,000 students on campuses in 39 states and online. Its fortunes are closely watched because it is the giant of for-profit postsecondary education; it received $1.8 billion in federal student aid in 2004-5. ‘Wall Street has put them under inordinate pressure to keep up the profits, and my take on it is that they succumbed to that,’ said David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.”
– “The university brings a low-overhead approach not only to its campuses, most of which are office buildings near freeways, but also to its academic model. About 95 percent of instructors are part-time, according to federal statistics, compared with an average of 47 percent across all universities. Most have full-time day jobs. Courses are written at university headquarters, easing class preparation time for instructors.”
– “Students take one course at a time, online or in evening classes, which meet for four hours, once a week, for five or six weeks, depending on degree level. As a result, students spend 20 to 24 hours with an instructor during each course, compared with about 40 hours at a traditional university.”
– “the university’s detractors suggest that it has always relied too much on part-time faculty and raced too quickly through course material. Others say the university’s academic program was once better but has deteriorated in breakneck expansion — it has opened 50 campuses in a decade. Today, even a cursory Internet search will turn up criticism on sites like and”
– “Robert Wancha, 42, a former National Guard commander who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information technology at the university’s Detroit campus, said that in a computer course last fall his instructor, Christopher G. Stanglewicz, had boasted that he had a doctorate but did little teaching, instead assigning students to work in learning teams while he toyed with his computer. Mr. Stanglewicz, reached at his home, acknowledged that he had covered only a fraction of the syllabus , partly, he said, because the university required him to cram too much information into too few sessions. ‘Students get overwhelmed,’ he said. Mr. Stanglewicz asserted in the interview that he had earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Kentucky.”
– “Stacey Clark, 32, an office manager in East Wenatchee, Wash., enrolled in online courses in April and was delighted to receive A’s in her first courses, she said. Later, Ms. Clark decided her instructors were too disengaged to criticize her work. One returned a 2,500-word essay on performance-enhancing drugs with an A but not one comment, she said. ‘You’re not learning from an actual teacher, you’re teaching yourself,’ Ms. Clark said.”

For those of you interested in for-profit education, do check out Dillon’s story.


The last three comments in the abovementioned, prior postings here predicted this article – or at least the tone of Dillon’s piece.

But what do we do with this information? What we, meaning the public and concerned observers, are waiting for is proof, namely studies, showing that academic quality does erode at institutions driven solely by the profit motive. This article is pointing in that direction, but we need an academic or a watchdog group to sample a larger set consumers – err students – and definitively record quality erosion. Until an entity with the money or resources begins and completes this study, all arguments against the University of Phoenix and institutions like it will remain simply anecdotal. – TL


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  1. Down here in Champaign we have just narrowly averted an effort by the University's leadership to start a for-profit online educational venture in the mode of U of Phoenix. This was to be called the UI “Global Campus.” After vigorous and unprecedented opposition from faculty (and administrators) on all three existing campuses, the plan was modified and the for-profit idea set aside.

    Still, the drive for mass online education continues, although with a nonprofit face. My own division is being recruited to develop an online degree program, and I myself am helping to develop it. In our case it makes some sense. We're already and extension unit, and we could reach many more students (who are all working adults), if we could have a mix of online and in person teaching.

    But what strikes me most is the disconnect between the vision of our course someday enrolling hundreds of students at a time, and the current reality which is very small classes and lots of one-on-one connection. Obviously, they see money in the project, otherwise they'd never offer us–a Labor Education Program–start up money.

    We've taken the position that getting into the mix right at the beginning will allow us to do it “the right way,” aiming for less use of adjuncts, partnering with unions and then offering their members discounts, etc. But I they don't share the financials, so we don't know what their break-even point is. So it'll be interesting to watch.


  2. Toby: Thanks for the update on the “Global Campus” situation. I read about it in the Chicago Tribune, but was hoping a reader with first-hand experience would jump in. Your current extension-oriented program seems very suitable for online activity. I know that Loretta is quite experienced with the pitfalls of online delivery, but if you need the student's perspective feel free to get in touch with Jodi: did it, grew to hate it, dropped it. – TL


  3. Sandy Vensland permalink

    I am a student in the educational doctorate program at the University of Phoenix. Both my undergrad and graduate degrees were obtained at on-campus universities in Minnesota, which is well-known for its high educational standards. This is my first on-line experience. I have also taught at the post secondary level for over twenty years. I do not care what type of academic institution one attends – students get out of their education what THEY put into it. When students evaluate my performance in the classroom, I have seen time and time, again, an interesting phenomenon. Students who put everything they have into their educational process give me very high performance ratings. Students who fail to put effort into their assignments and tests give me low ratings. So in essence, I am not evaluated on MY performance in the classroom, but on theirs. I am constantly challenged in my doctorate work at UOP. And everyone, from my enrollment counselor, to financial aid, to academic advising has stood on their heads to make sure I have the tools I need to succeed. They recognize intelligence, perseverance and tenacity in a student when they see it.


  4. Dear Sandy: Thanks for your post.

    I absolutely agree that much of what an undergraduate or graduate student gets out of any program is directly related to what he or she puts into it. Like you, I've seen this with my students and experienced it myself as a student.

    But, your experience aside, I'll need to see more positive testimonials from others before I believe that UoP students are really getting the depth and breadth of the experiences you did at universities in Minnesota. – TL


  5. The University of Phoenix is a total waste of time and money. It is very over priced and offers a poor education


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