Sunday, February 08, 2015


“Dad, Is the University of Phoenix a Good School?”

This weekend The Boy and I went on a brief roadtrip in service of a robotics tournament that wound up being cancelled.  (New England is under its third repent-your-sins storm warning in the past two weeks.)  A few hours in the car each way gave us a chance for some free-ranging conversation.  When you have hours of free-range conversation with a thirteen-year-old, you never know what you’re going to get.

I’m lucky that he’s a smart, inquisitive, good-natured, and well-spoken kid.  This wasn’t the tortured series of eye-rolls that some parents would get.  That said, he hit me with a question I wasn’t prepared for.

“Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?”

We had been talking about basketball and the various different sports that he might or might not play in high school.  So far his favorites are basketball and baseball, and I encouraged him to look into cross-country running.  He’s up to a size 14 shoe and counting, and skinny as a rail, so I could see him running for hours.  We agreed that football is fun to watch, but it’s hard to enjoy because of all the brain damage being done to the players.  I told him that I didn’t want him playing football because his meal ticket in life would be his brain, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his meal ticket.  From there, the discussion turned to college.

TB: Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?

Me: NO!

TB: (surprised) Really?  Why not?

I admit that I should have handled this one better.  In my defense, it was dark, and late, and I was half-listening to him and half-listening to the GPS trying to direct us to the hotel.  

Me: It’s a for-profit.  Sometimes they make compromises to make money.

TB: How do you know?

Me: I used to work at a for-profit.  

TB: Is your college for-profit?

Me: No, it’s public.  Publics are non-profit.

TB: So for-profits are bad?

Reader, I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.

Me: They don’t have to be, but they usually are.  

TB: So how do you know the good ones from the bad ones?

I punted.

Me: Well, I spend most of my time obsessing about colleges, so I know about their reputations.  You can do better.


Among specialists in the field, it’s easy to assume a certain set of background knowledge, and usually a certain set of shared assumptions.  Those can be flawed, of course, but they form the basis of things-you-don’t-have-to-explain.  

Talking with a bright, inquisitive kid without that frame of reference, though, I couldn’t help but notice his surprise at my response (and the vehemence with which it was delivered).  Other than Harvard and MIT, he mostly bases his sense of colleges on whether he has heard of them repeatedly or not.  By that standard, UofP does quite well.  It hosted the Super Bowl without even having a football team!  Not many colleges can say that.

The conversation stuck with me, though.  Wise and worldly readers, I need your help.  Leaving aside my (admittedly knee-jerk) answer on Phoenix particularly, what would be a fair basis for answering a thirteen-year-old’s question about whether college X is a good school?  How would we know?  I’m looking for something a little more rigorous than “because I said so,” but not quite at the level of, say, PIRS.  

I may have missed the mark on this one, but The Girl is only a few years behind.  I’d like to handle the question more gracefully when it comes back.  

I think that I would have said, "Done right, educating students costs a school a lot of money, so it is not a good way for a school to make money. If schools wants to make money, their students have to pay more, they will only teach subjects that will attract a lot of students, and they will spend more of their time advertising and publicizing themselves to attract more students. I would rather that you go to a school that considers your learning to be the most important thing, as opposed to them making a profit.
One thing that would make a good school [for you to go to] is good teaching. How can you tell if someone is a good teacher? Well, they have enough time to do their job and they get paid a fair salary to do it. Of course you want teachers who really know a lot about the subject they're teaching. Another thing that could make a good school is opportunities for students like you to get involved in things like internships, performances, and undergraduate research. [Talk about schools that do this.] Another thing you might want to think about is value for money, or bang for your buck. If you're going to pay a lot for a school, it should be prestigious, because in today's world that matters. If it's not prestigious, it should be inexpensive. [complex discussion of financial aid deferred to another time] Etc.
Pretty good answers, actually.

I'd ask him if he thinks the U of P has a football team that plays in their wonderful football stadium.


Seriously, I wonder how many people across the country think they have a football team!

And a discussion of where the money comes from for the stadium at various non-profit universities might make for an interesting discussion of where schools put their money.
At SA, we talk a lot about good fit. This is one of the first big life decisions most kids get to make, and it's a great opportunity for them to consider where and how they hope to spend four years. I point out that the highest-ranked (or whatever metric you want to use) school a student can get into is not necessarily the best fit for that person.

Also, I think it's important for students to watch their older friends' plans evolve. Most kids' top choice in August is not the top choice in January or April.
I don't know the answer to this, but I'd argue that just because a school ISN'T for-profit doesn't automatically make it a good school, either. And for what it's worth, I've also heard quite a bit of anti-community college snobbery based on the premise that they're not especially selective. (I was a student at a CC myself, and taught at two of them so I get frustrated with said snobbery.)

An Ivy may be better than a community college...if you don't take into account the individual student. Harvard may be better overall, but it doesn't mean it's the right or good choice for a particular student.

I'll note that I'm not saying UoP IS a good school - I don't know enough about them to have a good idea one way or the other.

I'd be more interested in having a discussion on a school-by-school basis. What are the circumstances in which one attends UoP as opposed to another school? Does that mean the student got a bad education? (I'd say not necessarily. Similar arguments were made about online programs, and now they're common enough not to be dismissed out of hand...I hope.)
"Well, I spend most of my time obsessing about colleges, so I know about their reputations."

I find this to be a completely valid answer on every level. I mean, that's part of why he asked you; this is in your wheelhouse.

Also, are there any teachers at TBs school with degrees from places like U of Phoenix? You should probably check. Several of my kid's teachers have degrees from Western Governors, which is ok by me, but might be just a step above U of Phoenix in somebody's book. It would complicate how I'd answer his questions about whether it's a good school though (my normal answer is "it might be a great school, but since it's all online lots of people won't respect it, which is somewhat irrational"- do you all remember esteemed scholars telling you it was unacceptable to cite in scholarly work online-only journals? In my field, at least, that's an absurd standard. It works much better to say "is it indexed in PubMed", but I suppose I should find out how they make the call for what gets indexed besides a threshold number of issues).

For a 13 year old, you could try telling him U of Phoenix : Harvard :: cubic zirconia : diamond. Or better yet, tell him it's yellowtail : Screaming Eagle, and invite him to do a blind taste test of the two (ok, not everybody is comfortable with the idea of a 13 year old tasting wine, but I'm sure you could come up with something similar with a little thought). Be blunt that it's a status thing. When people pay for status, it can be hard to know if they are getting what they pay for. But part of the reason people do it is because simply *knowing* which ones are authentic becomes important.
I wonder how many HS students watched the super bowl and are now thinking about the U of Phoenix when they wouldn't have otherwise?
Had a similar conversation with the best 13 year-old ever (well, in the Midwesr :).)... He's sensitive to social justice issues and adjunct issues, so that came up... and then I said that it's U I'd P is generally a last-choice school for folks who just need a degree, any degree. It's not known for it's in-person teaching etc.. Since he sees me teach onlinem this resonated with him.. along with a reminder that he'll get a bunch of free credits when he needs them.
Emphasize again that it has no football team, and say, "Doesn't that answer your question.?"
we are looking at colleges for #1 son. I find I have no idea how to figure out "is college X a good school ?" myself. nicoleandmaggies' list is a fair start, but it's going to be extremely difficult to find most of that data.

Certainly a healthy skepticism of for-profits is a start, but there are very few colleges that are currently not concerned with profit. Even the state schools have to worry about it, since we have choked off public funding.
I judge schools largely by 'net benefit.' It is an admittedly vague metric, but I think of it as being a function of ability to get a job in your chosen field, and to function well in that job, with a dash of broadened perspective, clarity of thought and expression, and other positives weighed against debt, exhaustion, and various opportunity costs of spending X years in pursuit of a degree.
How many students finish in 4 years? In six years? How much student debt is incurred relative to the cost of the school?

What percentage of students default on their loans after not graduating? What percentage of students default on their loans after graduating?

If it is a law school or has one, can you look up the percentage that passed the bar?

Those are questions I would ask.
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