Private Adult University Expands Horizons, Coffers

Article excerpt

Amid the jeers leveled by members of traditional academia, a very nontraditional for-profit higher-education system is throwing. Its secret? Gearing its programs toward the adult professional.

Ask John Sperling, founder of the two-decades-old University of Phoenix, the nation's most successful for-profit university, what his professional motto is and he answers, in his matter-of-fact way: "implacable opportunism." The 76-year-old Sperling is chief executive officer of Apollo Group, the school's parent organization which in 1995 came in third among Forbes magazine's top 200 firms in America that traded at $5 million to $350 million. During a five-year period ending in 1995, Apollo enjoyed an average return on equity of 77.5 percent and since that time has carried on in similar fashion.

Profit is fine, especially at a time when most American universities are in financial straits -- some of them seriously so. But what Sperling does (and likes to do) is educate adults. Students don't enroll in the University of Phoenix, or UOP, to study medieval French literature or the subtleties of current thought in quantum physics. They have to be age 23 or older (the average age is 34) and hold down a full-time job. Most are out to earn a bachelor's degree or study for a master's.

What UOP does is allow students to complete their studies in fields intimately related to their current jobs. These most often are in business, nursing, education or counseling.

Education at UOP is a cross-fertilization process in which students bring their work experience and knowledge of their needs to the campus to enrich that experience with the training and knowledge of the school's teaching staff and administration. Professors are told to expect to encounter students who know aspects of the field better than the professor, Sperling notes, providing an opportunity for both teacher and student to expand horizons.

Some oppose Sperling's experiment in adult education. Milton Blood, director of accreditation at the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business in St. Louis, loudly denounced UOP in the Wall Street Journal as "McEducation," a sort of fast-food training that doesn't pass muster when compared with traditional schools such as Harvard or the University of California at Berkeley, or even less highly regarded schools.

But UOP also has its supporters in the education establishment. In 1978, it was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which besides official respectability upon general college programs. The North Central Association has pointed with approval to UOP's courses designed for an adult and career-oriented student body and recruitment of teachers who deliver those courses effectively.

The marketplace agrees. UOP has about 35,000 students at locations in 12 states and Puerto Rico, up about 5,000 from more than a year ago, according to university officials. The original campus, in Phoenix, was founded in 1976. Sixty thousand have earned degrees. Students include employees of such cooperating corporations as AT&T, Sony, US West and Motorola. There also is an on-line campus, which engages students from all over the country.

Classes are held one evening a week for four hours and run five or six weeks. Attendance is taken (unlike at most universities), and only one absence is countenanced. Expenses average about $6,310 per year, which puts the cost of attending UOP in the bottom third among private U.S. universities. However, it still is more expensive than most state schools, a fact that may be misleading because UOP students will say they can graduate by taking night courses at UOP years sooner than by taking night courses at state schools, since such institutions tend to schedule course offerings inconveniently.

Only 26 professors serve full time as permanent UOP faculty -- the remaining 4,500 teachers at its various campuses in locations across the country such as Detroit, San Diego, Salt Lake City and Honolulu are professionals who have degrees in their teaching subject but also have longtime work experience in their fields. …