Education for Profit: Why Is Everyone Flaming the University of Phoenix?

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By many measures, the University of Phoenix is the most successful institution for higher education in American history. With more than 325,000 students currently enrolled--22 times the number at the University of Chicago--Phoenix is vast, and contains multitudes. On campuses scattered across 39 states, and online as well, it offers everything from associate's degrees in sports management to Spanish-language MBAs. And unlike most universities, Phoenix makes a hefty profit. Its parent company, the Apollo Group, produced margins of 11.7 percent last year on revenue of $2.9 billion. What began in 1976 as a small night school where firemen and policemen between shifts completed unfinished bachelor's degrees is now an educational and commercial powerhouse listed on NASDAQ with a market capitalization of $7.4 billion.

But in recent years, the University of Phoenix has become the poster child for everything the mainstream academic establishment thinks is wrong about for-profit higher education. The school's aggressive recruiting practices and high dropout rates have drawn fire from The Chronicle of Higher Education, where a college admissions specialist in 2004 called Phoenix's approach "an affront to the principles that have been developing in college admissions over the last three decades." The head of the major accreditation body for business schools, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, last year accused Phoenix of using "a lot of come-and-go faculty." The U.S. Department of Education has punished the school for insufficient hours spent in the classroom and illegal recruiting practices, exacting two settlements during the last decade totaling $15.8 million. "Their business degree," Henry M. Levin, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, told The New York Times last year, "is an MBA Lite."

Many of the criticisms are technically accurate. The school does have aggressive recruiters and skimpy class hours. The faculty is nearly all part time. Graduation rates are low, and the level of instruction can be too.

But much of what academic traditionalists see as problems, Phoenix advertises proudly as solutions. The university aims to meet underserved demand for post-secondary education, tailor-made to fit the individual circumstances of harried adults. Like other for-profit schools such as DeVry and ITT, Phoenix offers the educational equivalent of a subprime mortgage: not the best product the industry has to offer, but a potentially valuable option for people who might not otherwise get into a desired market.

As with subprimes, a nonnegligible portion of consumers won't be able to stay afloat, exiting school moderately poorer and perhaps not much wiser. But the students who do graduate--like the millions who use subprime deals to gain a firmer foothold in the housing market--have a much different story to tell. Their tales are not about sunshine on the quad, Saturday night football games, or ivy-covered walls. They're about a kind of practical, bare-bones education that you never see in coming-of-age films but that is usually superior to no education at all.

At the same time, the size of the Phoenix student body--like the number of homeowners during the recent bubble--has been artificially inflated by policies set in Washington. There are legitimate criticisms of the university. But the education establishment's hostility to the institution often lies elsewhere, in an attitude toward for-profit higher ed that is essentially an aversion to change and commerce, the same snobbish disdain directed at payday lenders, providers of adjustable rate mortgages, and inner-city fast-food vendors. Few sins are less forgivable in polite society than offering poor people products they actively seek.

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