Monday, February 12, 2007


Thoughts on the University of Phoenix

The New York Times had a story on Sunday (here) detailing the legal troubles the University of Phoenix is facing. In a nutshell, they included a shockingly low graduation rate, Intel's refusal to reimburse tuition there for its employees, allegations of serious overselling by its admissions reps, extreme reliance on adjuncts (about 95% of its faculty), shaky quality, and a general insistence on putting profits before anything else. The story lacks a punchline, since it's mostly a laundry list of accusations without much context. I'll try to add some nuance, to the extent I can.

(Unlike most higher-ed commentators on the University of Phoenix, I've actually worked in both for-profit higher ed and traditional higher ed. In my time at Proprietary U, I went from adjunct faculty to full-time faculty to administration, so I've seen the inner workings of for-profit higher ed from several angles. I've written before on the specific differences between for-profit and traditional higher ed.)

Some of the allegations, which seem shocking on the surface, aren't really all that different from much of what happens in the lower tiers of public higher ed. Many community colleges rely primarily on adjuncts. The worst offender I know of, Rio Salado College, has an adjunct percentage well into the 90's. (Rio Salado is in Maricopa County, Arizona, which is where the University of Phoenix was born. Maybe it's something in the water?) Intel's refusal to reimburse tuition was based on UoP not being AACSB accredited. Most schools aren't. UoP is regionally accredited, just like public colleges and universities.

Any organization with extremely rapid growth for an extended period will have issues with personnel quality. It's hard to hire selectively when you're hiring frantically. Anybody who has had to staff sections with adjuncts can tell you that when you get down to the last week before classes start and there's a full section unstaffed, you go as low as you have to go. Multiply that by an entire institution.

Low graduation rates can be read in several ways. The Times implies that it indicates poor quality, which is certainly one possibility. It could also indicate high standards – weed 'em out – or a heavily non-traditional student body or a transfer orientation or even high employer demand. (At the peak of the tech boom in the late 90's, some of the attrition at Proprietary U was driven by employers poaching our students before they graduated!) My guess, based on my time at Proprietary U, is that part of the issue is a serious lack of remediation for students who need it.

It's hard to turn a profit by teaching. (It's even harder to turn steadily-increasing profits through teaching, since it's nearly impossible to improve the 'productivity' – in economic terms – of instruction without either watering it down or pricing yourself out of the market. At publicly-traded colleges, it's not enough to make profits; you have to make steadily increasing profits. It's a subtle but important difference.) At most traditional colleges, to my understanding, teaching is done at a loss. The difference is made up through grants, philanthropy, endowment returns, and (increasingly) royalties. To turn a profit by teaching – to go without an endowment or philanthropic giving, and to eschew research grants – requires a difficult combination of high tuition, very low overhead, and really aggressive marketing.

High tuition is self-explanatory. The trick is getting students to pay it.

The Harvards of the world do it by selling prestige. Proprietaries generally don't have that option. (Sentence I've never heard: “Wow, you got into DeVry!”) Instead they market job relevance and customer service.

Honestly, I was surprised to read of UoP's low graduation rate. If true, then UoP doesn't understand its own business very well. At PU, retention was everything, since the private-sector term for retention is 'repeat customer.' If you could get a kid to make it to graduation, you got 8 or 9 semesters of tuition out of him; if he dropped out, you were lucky to get two or three. We were all about retention. In my admin role, I got a report every Tuesday listing the drop percentages of every section in my subject areas, along with the names of the offending instructors. It was made abundantly clear to me that instructors who frequently topped the list were to be Talked To, and either reformed or dismissed. (Obviously, PU didn't have a tenure system.) That rubbed me the wrong way, and was one of the factors that drove me to look for jobs in traditional higher ed.

Of course, in technical areas, a certain amount of math is required, and the kinds of students who found their way to PU were often students who had struggled with math. At a cc, we'd resolve the tension through extensive remediation. Get the students up to snuff, then turn them loose. At PU, we did everything humanly possible to avoid remediation, since students wouldn't pay premium tuition to remediate. If we told them they needed remediation, they usually walked. (“I'm not paying good money for a course that doesn't count!”) So the struggle was to improve retention without resorting to remediation. Grade inflation had natural limits, since one of the selling points PU used to recruit was a very high placement rate with employers at pretty good starting salaries. If PU started graduating knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers, the placement rate would soon drop, and PU's reason to exist would evaporate. The usual faculty suggestion – raise admissions standards – was dismissed out of hand, since the short-term cost of smaller entering classes was presumed to be prohibitive, and the stock market is famously intolerant of short-term losses.

One method was to ask faculty in the intro courses to be superhuman. The results were, at best, mixed. Another solution – after the tech boom imploded and admissions numbers started cratering – was to come up with a category between 'remedial' and 'credit-bearing.' Welcome to the 'prerequisite skills' course! Since I left, I've heard they've developed a 'self-paced' independent 'refresher' workshop. Anything to avoid the 'R' word.

Certainly, the Admissions staff overpromised. One of the banes of the deans' existence there was helping students who had been sold a bill of goods come to grip with Objective F-ing Reality, without walking out the door. Part of that was a basic failure of accounting. The Admissions staff got credit for the sale if the kid stayed in school for thirty days; after that, attrition was blamed on Academics. So the Admissions staff would do what it had to do to close sales, and we got stuck fixing the leaks (or not) after the fact. Admissions staff were held to strict sales quotas and dismissed if they didn't make them, so they did whatever they had to do. The Admissions director at my campus once admitted to me that one of their most effective selling points was to underplay the general education requirements (my area). That explained a lot about the student attitudes the faculty encountered.

If I were appointed czar of the University of Phoenix, my first move would be to upgrade the faculty (hire a significant cohort of full-timers) to handle students with limited skills/motivation/time. Until they improve their graduation rate, they're going to be in serious trouble. Yes, that would entail a short-term cost. But it's the right way to go. Obviously, that strategy would crash headlong into the stock market imperative of quarterly returns, but I'm increasingly convinced that private equity is the way for for-profit higher ed to go. Yes, all that public capital sloshing around can be great fun for a time, but it creates pressures that I don't think any institution has yet figured out how to handle. They need patient capital, which means private capital.

(My gloriously brilliant idea, if I do say so myself, is the 'upscale' proprietary: Mercedes U. Make it expensive, difficult to get into, and snobby as hell. Yo, Venture Capitalists! Email me! I've even got a rudimentary business plan! Hallooo...?)

Like many higher ed observers, the Times lumps a number of disfavored trends into one category (usually called 'corporatization' or something like that) and assumes coherence among them. It's tempting, it makes the observer feel morally righteous in his indignation, but it's inaccurate. Most successful businesses pay at least some attention to quality control, lest they lose out to competitors with better products or services. UoP, apparently, has been neglecting quality control, in the name of reducing overhead. There are real, quantifiable limits to that. An intelligent for-profit college wouldn't take a 'slash and burn' approach to students, since they're much more expensive to recruit than to retain. Faculty are the front line personnel in dealing with students. Taking a slash-and-burn approach with faculty can only poison the attitudes of the people with whom the students come into contact the most. It's not 'corporatization': it's lousy management. There's a difference.

Upscale proprietaries: The high-end 18-year-olds will choose a top-flight traditional school, natch, so a hardcore selective proprietary would be targeting older but successful workers. Problem is, there are a lot of selective, expensive training programs out there with gobs of name prestige already.

Many famous biology institutions (the Marine Biological Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Labs, etc.) run selective multi-week summer courses with high tuition charges. In the computer industry, major players (Cisco, Sun, etc.) offer training and certification to non-employees, and these certs have wide recognition in the industry. I'm sure that similar certs are avilable in other industries. I think those would count for more than a degree from Snooty Proprietary U.
For me the most chilling part of the article was when they mentioned that the overall percentage of adjunct faculty in the rest of the academy was 47%!!

Good lord! Looks like a made the right decision in getting out of the adjunct gig! (But then just this morning I heard a feature on NPR that would fit right in to my syllabus, stop me before I adjunct again.)
Excellent analysis. The other night, I was just talking about how I realised that the reason I didn't want to work in a university/CC with teaching responsibilities is not because I don't like teaching, but because I don't like the business model. It's a long product cycle ( hard to evaluate success until years later) which means that it makes much more business sense for unis to increase marketing spend rather than strengthening service delivery. (Up until the point were it all falls over like UOP and becomes a marketing disaster, of course).

Thanks for your help for those of us struggling with the structural issues of education provision.
I'd love to hear you blog about approaches to retention. The good side, not the "talking to" that sounds too much like a Gentleman's B. Private schools have always put more emphasis on that than public ones, but it is something we all worry about. How to keep those kids who simply walk away, even before the first exam?
Attrition is more complex than many people realize. Most retention/attrition studies find that in excess of twenty-five percent of students leaving higher education prior to earning a degree have grade point averages of 2.5 or higher. Enrolling competent students and treating them well is not the full answer to attrition. Neither is offering appropriate developmental coursework (although both are steps in the right direction).

Meeting student expectations and offering coursework students deem valuable are two important factors on which many institutions fail to follow through.
I think I can offer a unique comment here. I have worked for the UofP. It was during my furious adjuncting time (10 adjunct classes at three institutions), and the problems go deeper than either the article or Dean Dad describe.

DD offers that the UofP could decrease adjuncting by hiring more full-timers. In order to do so, though, they would have to rewrite their mission. They claim to hire working instructors--the myth of a well-heeled business person teaching one class on the side. In reality, adjuncts are offered multiple sections, which means that they are either working full-time elsewhere and part-time teaching, or slamming together a lot of part-time gigs (my personal favorite).

Then, there is the matter of centralized content. Instructors are required to teach only the material the UofP provides. There is little opportunity for deviation. You are given the readings, rubrics and dates (I was teaching a 5 week, online course). It was Draconian, and I walked away.

So, given that there is only limited amount of opportunity--and that opportunity is itself limited to "facilitating" (their term) their content--then the labor pool available to the UofP shrinks, and the quality of instruction suffers pushing down retention.

It is a vicious cycle that is taking, in my opinion, way too long to complete.
And you can find UOP's response here:
The 16% graduation rate that was cited in the article is misleading. All universities have to provide the Federal government with a report that tracks the graduation rates of those students who come into the institution with no prior college experience. Because the University of Phoenix caters to working adults, most of whom have taken some college courses before starting at UOP, only 7% of its students are tracked in the cited report. The report is compiled by each campus and the reporter hunted for those campuses with the lowest rate on the report. When you look at overall graduation rates, UOP is in line with traditional universities with a 50-60% graduation rate.
I teach for the UoP and can tell you that open-enrollment and non-remediation are huge problems. Instructors who teach the first block classes spend many hours attempting to get their students up-to-snuff. These instructors face students who simply do not belong in a college class. Many times these students are rude and disrespectful to their instructors, refusing to accept responsibility for their part in this process. UoP online instructors earn $1235.00 for a 9 week course and if you're lucky enough to get a 3rd or later block class, you're in heaven. If you get a first block class, you work like hell and put in too many hours to justify being there.

UoP keeps running faculty recruiting adds. There are many of us onboard and it's difficult to get a class now, yet UoP keeps advertising.

There are other problems, too. We teach outside our disciplines. It can be interesting, but it's hard work to keep up with an unfamiliar discipline.

The online course syllabi and assignments sometimes make no sense. They're unclear and vague. We have to make our own documents to clarify assignments (if we even understand them). We spend hours and hours fine-tuning UoP's assignment instructions, so our students will understand them.

What more is there to say????
The University of Phoenix is a total scam and rippoff!! Do not attend this school unless you want to pay for an overpriced and really poor education.
Teaching at UOP is an ideal way for mediocre "instructors" to earn money for their departments. Many are inconsistent, perhaps because the person grading the papers is not who is getting the check. Some of the instructors add nothing to the class.

Much of the course work is poorly designed and frequently does not fit the questions some brainiac has written. The courses refer to outdated materials and studies, even to long-broken Internet links.

They require a master's to "teach". Anyone with a high school education could monitor the students, run the papers through the edit/plagiarism check and give a grade. For all the students know, that IS what is happening.

And that says nothing to their promises of scholarships that do not materialize. As long as colleges get their federal dough without government oversight, these problems will continue to exist.

Instructors do not check into classes or respond to questions for clarification promptly. UOP is big on the "team" assignment approach, when in fact, no one at UOP cares if the team projects are clear and realistic. Most instructors have no clue what is happening in the team groups, nor do they care.

In the last class of the resident student in my home, the instructor checked in briefly for about 15 minutes each night, was never available for questions and it was obvious that whoever was grading did not know if he had given different instructions to the students. Not bad pay for less than an hour/week. BTW, for those who do not know, it takes less than 30 seconds to run an eight page paper through the Center for Writing Excellence.

One instructor did not know how to check for plagiarism, nor did the instructor know that the UOP plagiarism checker did not pick up on Wikipedia or pdfs. And when a team mate DOES plagiarize, the intructors want to be kept out of the middle.

Perhaps Marla La Rue, or David Bickford should take a look at the poor quality curriculum UOP provides. For the money they obtain for classes,students deserve a better deal.
For those of you that have taught the online courses, how much do they get paid for a 6 week class?
I understand that you have worked at both non and for - profit higher - Ed's, and it seems that you are just a little upset that UofP utilizes adjuct's to teach a majority of their classes. I live Philadelphia, PA. As you are probablely aware, we have more than are fare-share of Snooby U's. I have co-workers and friends that are atending Penn, Villanova and Rutgers. Since we are all striving for our MBA the topic of often comes up. If you have not realized I am a UofP student. It's amazing that I am doing 3 times the amount of work in terms of reading and writing then any of them. My friend at Rutgers has written exactly 2 papers in 7 classes. My friend at Villanova is not writing that much either. They say that education comes from the "interactions". Suprise, this classes are not taught by those who have achieved their doctorates' rather by those still working towards them. Only, Penn seems to be requiring there students to learn the art of written communication. While I admit, the team concept is seems to be anything but, my frieds a prestiguos U. seem to have the thoughts. Education is like anything else, you only get out of it what you put into it. And yes I do understand that because of where they went they will move up faster.
I signed on to the RN-BSN program online and I have had nothing but incompetent aholes to deal with since I started. The financial aid department cannot run their fax machine properly to fax documents to have my previous laons in deferment and now admission councilors are messing up too. Just becasue they did not ask the proper questions from the beginning, now I am "on hold" from my second class until they figure it out. They did not have any problem rushing me to begin even without transcripts (I called to inquire and then began classes one week later)but now that they have PART of them in is MY FAULT??? Now I am on hold from attending their overpriced university? If they are concerned about making money, they must stop people from getting as angry as I am over their incompetencies to keep the influx of students coming. I have found this website to voice my opinion about this university....I am determined to find MANY others!
I have just been put through an interview process that was based on Univ. of Phoenix hiring strategies. All candidates were put in a room together and told to collectively come to agreement on a solution. I had no idea we would be put in this situation going into the "interview" which is what I had expected. The administer boasted of this new technique. You should know that this was all for a secretarial position. It was a grueling and undignified process especially when unexpected.
I would like to know if a student is on academy probation and take a leave for personal reason and stays gone for a year when return to the school are they still on academy probation.
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Perhaps the business model of for-profit, share-backed educational provision was flawed after all.

Let's remember this lesson as governments to outsource public education to for profit businesses. The incipient signs are there, through online virtual schools such as Florida's Virtual school. Read about For-Profit College Corporation Accused of Violating Federal Law by States, Justice Department
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All of the adjunct hate is not warranted. Of the 5 best professors I had through undergrad and graduate school, 4 of them were adjuncts with real life experience. The standard PHD typically has little interest in teaching, and less interest in helping you out.
I agree that it's hard to turn a profit by teaching and most successful businesses pay at least some attention to quality control with UOP rating going down apparently, they has been neglecting quality control, in the name of reducing overhead. Really interesting Post.
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