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.
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.
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.)
Thanks for your help for those of us struggling with the structural issues of education provision.
Meeting student expectations and offering coursework students deem valuable are two important factors on which many institutions fail to follow through.
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.
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????
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.