Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Phoenix Rising: The University of Phoenix Has Evolved from Its Small Beginnings to Become the Largest Private University in the United States and a Leader in Distance Education. (Cover Story)

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Phoenix Rising: The University of Phoenix Has Evolved from Its Small Beginnings to Become the Largest Private University in the United States and a Leader in Distance Education. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

At first, Clint Stirling was apprehensive about going back to school. A retired member of U.S. Air Force, he was working in accounting for an insurance company in San Antonio. He knew he wanted to move to the next level in his career, but he wasn't sure whether he could handle the time, cost and inconvenience of returning to the classroom.

Then he met a recruiter for the University of Phoenix Online, a cyber-university that now serves more than 25,700 degree-seeking adult students worldwide.

He's now taking classes towards his bachelor's degree in information technology.

"I love to do school work from my home, online, at my convenience, any time of the day or night," Stirling says. "The schedule is very flexible. If I were to attend traditional night school I would have to drive, park, walk, sit for four hours, walk, drive and go home at 10 o'clock at night and be extremely tired. With online school, it is very relaxing and I don't have to fight traffic."

Students like Stirling log in to class bulletin boards whenever it fits into their schedule and post their contribution to the ongoing discussion between students and teacher. They do their reading and research for the class on their own time as well and may be required to check in five times a week to respond to various questions and assignments. Like other types of education, how much students get out of this type of learning depends on how much they put into it.

University of Phoenix has another 70,000 attending classes at more than 100 locations around the country, making it the largest private university in the country. The university offers bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees as well as professional certificates, in a variety of business fields as well as others, such as education and nursing.

Each online undergraduate class lasts five weeks while graduate classes are six weeks long. If classes are taken continuously, one after another, students can expect to earn a degree in two to three years.

"There are some people for whom attending class one night a week is too difficult," says Anthony DiGiovanni, chief executive officer of University of Phoenix Online. "We cater to that individual."

The average student is in their 30s and has been in the work force for more than 7 years. This student wants practical knowledge, DiGiovanni says, not esoteric lectures with no application in the real world.

"People have a chance to come in and talk about their workplace, comment on the effectiveness of a theory," says DiGiovanni. "One of the keys to our success is that we are efficient educational tools not only for individuals but for employers as well."

He said 60 percent of the students have their tuition reimbursed by employers, and UOP Online students have a 95 percent completion rate. Classes cost between $400 and $450 a credit hour, averaging about $8,000 to $10,000 a year. This compares favorably to other programs, some of which cost up to $30,000 a year.

A leading force

There are two million students who are taking classes online at 1,670 institutions, according to the United States Distance Learning Association. Phoenix is one of the top schools, along with the University of Maryland, Oklahoma State University and Jones International University.

Robert Reilly, director of membership services for the association, says Phoenix was a pioneer in the field.

"University of Phoenix was nimble and sensed there was a market for this," says Reilly. "They took a gamble, and it turns out they were right. They were very entrepreneurial about it."

The University of Phoenix started with a class of just eight working adults in 1976 and grew to encompass 34 brick-and-mortar campuses and 71 learning centers. It is owned by the Apollo Group, which was founded in 1973 and is a conglomeration of for-profit educational companies. Other schools in the group are the Institute for Professional Development, the College for Financial Planning Institutes Corp. …

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