August 30, 2014

How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

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University of Phoenix (2010) 2010 Annual Academic Report University of Phoenix AZ: University of Phoenix

This is third academic annual report from the University of Phoenix (UofPx).

There are at least three different ways to assess the University of Phoenix, besides the obvious one of making money, which it does by the bucket: $1.04 billion profit in 2009 (before tax), which is more than the total operating budget of most research universities. (The profit figure comes from a different report, the Apollo Group Annual Report, 2009, p. 52)

Students

One way to look at the University of Phoenix is to ask: does it provide a needed service?

In its 2010 Annual Academic report, UofPx compares its student profile with that for the rest of the United States higher education system and concludes:

Close to half of the University’s enrollment consists of students from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities.’

In particular:

  • 2% are classified as ‘non-resident alien’ (for those readers outside the United States, aliens are non-USA citizens, not creatures from Mars), compared with 9% in the rest of the system.
  • 18% are Black/Afro-American compared with 12% in the rest of the system
  • 35% are white, compared with 58% in the rest of the system
  • 69% are female, compared with 57% in the rest of the system.

In other words, UofPx is providing the same role that many publicly funded open universities fulfill in the rest of the world: providing an alternative route to higher education for disadvantaged minorities. Unfortunately, UofPx suffers from the stigma of being ‘for-profit’, which is somewhat ironical, given the value system in the USA that generally favours privatization, whereas, at least in the European countries, publicly funded open universities such as the UK Open University and the Open University of Catalonia often have a higher degree of public acceptance than the UofPx.

The question I have is: why are not the public sector institutions in the USA making more effort to accommodate these disadvantaged students? There are several obvious answers:

  • these are often ‘unwanted’ students, since they are not generally high-flying students who will go on to become full-time research students,
  • they require more effort from instructors to teach successfully;
  • there is little incentive from state legislatures to encourage the traditional system to accommodate such students;
  • the institutions would need to change their way of working to accommodate such students, because such students are working and require more flexibility.

I don’t think any of these is an adequate reason for a publicly-funded university not to provide services to such students. Such students have every right to access to public higher education – or should higher education be barred to such students? And why should disadvantaged students, usually on much lower incomes, have to pay full cost to a for-profit when other students are more highly subsidized in public institutions? (UofPx students do generally qualify for federal financial aid, but they still end up paying a lot more than if they were at a public institution.)

In terms of meeting a real need, in terms of the market it serves, I would give the UofPx an A+ compared to the rest of the system.

Quality assurance

It has some interesting things to say about measuring academic quality. (Regrettably, neither the Annual Academic Report nor the Apollo Group financial report make any distinctions between online and face-to-face programs, although more than half the students are online at the UofPx.) In particular, it makes the claim that the University of Phoenix should not be measured in terms of graduation rates:

Most of the current measures of academic quality are those applied to full-time on-campus students, who make up only about one quarter of the total college enrollment in America. These students go directly from high school to college, attend classes full time, and experience residential life on campus. They then proceed to the world of work. For these students there is an orderly progression that can be tracked and quantified institutionally by
such measures as graduation rates, job placement rates, or lifetime earnings.

However, some three-quarters of all students in America today do not fit this mold. They are older; they work full or part time and have family responsibilities, including financial obligations. …. Their progression is not linear or orderly and is complicated by a variety of life factors (i.e., risks), and yet access to higher education is vital. For these students, measures such as graduation rates are not the best indicators of institutional success.

As a result of the needs of the new majority, and because technology has advanced to a point that anyone can attend class at any time and almost anywhere, delivery methods have evolved and the appropriate metrics to measure quality have yet to be defined.

The University of Phoenix has determined that academic quality must be discussed from two perspectives: as a measure of internal integrity in which key indicators that tie academic outcomes to student success are a part of a system of continuous improvement, and as a set of measures by which institutions can be compared in regard to student achievement.

It argues that:

defining the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess upon graduating with a degree in a given discipline has been at the core of both the curriculum design and the assessment process at University of Phoenix for several years. It is, in fact, one of the major ways that the University believes academic quality can be engaged, ensured, and evaluated for improvement.

So how well does the UofPx do in terms of measuring success in developing ‘the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess’? It provides some interesting comparative data, comparing UoP students’ scores with students from universities that offer bachelors through to masters, on the following scales:

  • NSSE (the National Survey of Student Engagement),
  • SAILS (Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills)
  • ETS proficiency profile (formerly MAPP)

In general, UofPx students were equivalent to or outperformed other groups on these measurements.

Of course, this does not answer the question whether UofPx students will make better graduate students, or better students in American literature, or better students in physics ; probably not, because their focus is on skills required by employers. But does it give these students what they want, in terms of learning outcomes? From surveys of those that graduated, apparently so, but of course there is always an element of cognitive dissonance in such ratings.

In terms of quality, and allowing for some degree of selection in the methods chosen by UofPx to measure quality, I would give a B-.

In particular, an effort was made to measure academic outcomes and benchmark them. I think the UofPx could improve on this a great deal, but then this is a challenge for the whole post-secondary system, not just the UofPx.

Graduation rate

Of those who completed at least three credits, 34% graduated within six years, compared with 53% nationally.

This is for me is the Achilles heel of UofPx. I realise that many taking UofPx’s programs are working, and one would expect them to take longer to graduate. However, I think it is a scandal that students in traditional universities need to take six years or more to graduate at the bachelor’s level. It is true that many working adults already with a degree may be less interested in acquiring another degree when returning to university, but this is not UofPx’s primary market. Most students want a degree at the end of their studies, and this applies especially to UofPx’s students, most of whom do not have a first degree.

Just because the rest of the system is inefficient is not an excuse for UofPx. It should be finding a way to get more students graduated, especially given the high level of fees that UofPx’s students are paying, and the financial aid students are getting through Federal grants. On this I would give UofPx a D grade. (But then I would give more or less the same to public institutions on this measure).

Summary

Overall, I would give the University of Phoenix a C+. It meets a real need, and sets and achieves realistic academic goals for the students it attracts, as far as it goes. However, it does not succeed in giving the majority of students who enroll what they are seeking, a degree in a reasonable amount of time.

The prejudices against the University of Phoenix are misplaced. The fact that it is successful is a criticism of the failure of public higher education policy in the USA to accommodate fully disadvantaged minorities within the public system. The UofP is filling a massive hole in the US post-secondary education system vacated by the public institutions and more so by their state governments. In an ideal world, there should be no need for the University of Phoenix, but since it is not ideal, the University of Phoenix is providing a service that the rest of the system is failing to deliver.

See also Doug Clow’s excellent blog on the Apollo Group and especially their acquisition of the UK private Law and Business School company, BPP.

Comments

  1. Tom Carey says:

    Tony, thanks for the thoughtful analysis. It might help to put your C+ grade in context if you could provide a reference point: is this an “above average” rating with many comparable institutions at C, or is it subject to grade inflation where comparable institutions mostly get a B (up to your discretion as to defining ‘comparable’…).

  2. Tony Bates says:

    Touché, Tom!

    My highly subjective grading is on a roughly five point scale, where C is average or mid-point. So C+ is slightly better than average in terms of meeting needs, compared to the online public post-secondary sector in the USA as a whole (which of course covers very wide variations). Most large state research universities would be above average, but some state universities and many colleges would be below average, in terms of meeting the needs of their specified target groups. (I’m also comparing primarily online programs here rather than all programs).

    You can see the more specific I try to get, the more I’m going to get into trouble. I don’t think there can be an ‘absolute’ scale, because different institutions have different missions. Also there are many different variables to take into account.

    I rate Phoenix slightly above average on online learning primarily because they do a very professional job with their online teaching design and delivery, and are meeting real needs that don’t seem to be so well served by the rest of the sector. They do less well on academic quality (but not as badly as many seem to think), and above all on graduation rates, which suggests they need to do more on learner support – but that’s expensive and will eat into their profits.

    Again, this is very subjective, because we lack good data and an agreed methodology to make such comparisons. I touch only little bits of the elephant, so I could be very wrong.

    Ironically, though, we have more public information about quality (good and bad) in online learning from the vast and very diverse US system than we do about the much smaller and less diverse Canadian post-secondary system. I suspect that overall the quality of online learning is more consistent in Canada, but where’s the data or public accountability?

  3. Linda Harasim says:

    Hi all and Happy 2011.

    Tony’s information and comments on UoPhoenix are useful and I want to express my gratitude because it IS difficult to obtain information on post-secondary institutions in general, public, private and for-profit.

    Tom Carey’s question about the context of the grading is helpful: Tony might you comment (very tentatively) about how the online vs f2f fares? Despite the overall lack of a methodology.

    I think that the discussion on how to assess and study online learning versus or as well as f2f learning is a very important topic.

    And to consider the institutional issues about effective quality learning is also a very hot button topic that this forum could have fun with and very productively address.

    Cheers,
    Linda

  4. Tony Bates says:
  5. Thank you so much for this article. The University of Phoenix is striving to change their appearance in Academia, and I feel like they should get credit for exceeding every expectation that was set for them. Who cares if they are for profit? I don’t, because I am paying a reasonable price for a decent education. I will be the first to admit that the University of Phoenix is no Harvard, but if at the end of my studies you compare my education to that of my peers, I guarantee the competition will be fierce. ;)

    I am definitely one of the “underprivileged minorities” who couldn’t attend a traditional university. The University of Phoenix makes it possible for me to challenge myself and make a better life for me and my family. Anybody who knocks that is just afraid of change.

  6. T Wright says:

    Hello. I enjoyed reading your article, I have been a student at the UoPx for three years. I received my associate’s degree last year and will receive my bachelor’s next year. I have been frustrated many times because I have found myself defending my university, many believe it is not a REAL education. I would like to pose this question to those people: Have you ever taken a course online? Because it is not easy, it takes a tremendous amount of will power, and as your article mentions, most of us work full time and have families on top of attending school. Which is why I would wager to say the graduation rate is low, not everyone can handle this.

    Personally, I have worked full time, been responsible for my three children ages 11, 6, and 3 now, AND attended college full time. I would also like to mention that I am 28 and I was accepted in to a traditional university prior to attending the UoPx. Furthermore, I have maintained a GPA of at least 3.55 for the last three years. This means for me that my average day begins getting the kids ready and off to school and getting myself off to work, working 8 or 9 hours and heading home. I then prepare dinner, help the kids with their homework, get them to bed, clean up the house, and THEN do homework for 2-3 hours a night, sometimes longer depending on how difficult the class is.

    Now remember, all of my school work is esentially homework, so this entails reading, discussions, working within my learning team on group assignments, working on my individual assignments, researching, writing papers, creating presentations, etc. All this with no one making me, no one expecting me to be in class at a certain time, I am essentially in charge of my own education, all of us at the University of Phoenix are and I would like to see a bit more acknowledgement of that fact from the rest of the world.

  7. The question is How does Tony Bates measure up?
    Tony has lived under a rock his entire live. Not to have realized that University of Phoenix provides a needed service is pure stupidity.
    Tony, the University of Phoenix has been able to deliver education to more people that anyone one has ever else in the history of humanity. You get a D- for ignorance; not comprehending the sheer influence of the university. Wake up, open your eyes, see what is happening around you. You have been asleep way too long. Style up.

    • Hi, Mac

      I may live under a rock, but at least I can read.
      If you had bothered to read the article carefully I clearly state the UofP provides a needed service. Either you work for their marketing division, or don’t deserve to be at UofP.

      Regards

  8. I don’t get the reason for Mac’s frustration and rude rant.

    I’ve been working in online education for 30 years and also I was the person who first designed the online collaborative learning pedagogy for UoPxOnline, in 1988. I am someone who may be said to have (had) a stake in UoPxOnline being viewed and assessed as effective and worthy.

    I think that Tony provided a very valuable perspective on UPxOnline, and that it was illuminating and thoughtful.

    I have known Tony for several decades and he is always very mindful and professional; he is one of the best in our field.

    Whoever you are, Mac, you do both Tony and UPxOnline a great disservice. And your flame demonstrates disrespect to all of us who engage in this community to share ideas, rather than unwarranted put downs.

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  10. hi there guys …i am sure im asking something off the topic. i have heard of Universities which offer distance learning courses but the exams have to be taken in the university , which means you have to travel to give the exams
    I am looking for some option like this as i live in saudi arabia and they do not accept online degress .

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    i could be reached at javeria.ali88@gmail.com

  11. First off I don’t know if any of you went to this school. But from my personal experience this school is more about selling you a piece of paper that doesn’t amount to anything in the job market! Nothing that employers truly would ever pay you for. Then once I graduated with a Bachelors degree. They call you and ask if your interested in getting a Masters! While your still making $10.00 a hour. What the heck is wrong with these kind of institutions to get away with stealing basically from the people that are trying to get ahead in the world. And they aren’t just screwing over the people coming right out of college. They are getting all age groups! And it seems this scam of a system we have in America isn’t helping anybody, but the people in charge of the scam as a whole! Lets stop putting ourselves more in debt for pieces of paper that says a few worthless letters on it. In the end experience is everything! Do I want this country or world to not get educated! Hell no it’s already dumb enough with all the corrupt politicians in office that keep schools like the University of Pheonix passing out debts to their students that they will never be able to repay with the degree they received from this Establishment!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] to look closely at the academic side of the University of Phoenix part of the business, because Tony Bates has done a comprehensive job of assessing their results from their Annual Academic Report. He gives them an A+ compared to the rest of the system for [...]

  2. [...] See also: How does the University of Phoenix measure up? [...]

  3. [...] The University of Phoenix. This for-profit institution has received a lot of criticism, partly for its marketing activities, which in the past have encouraged students to take programs when they weren’t ready for distance study. However, partly as a result of this criticism, the university has put in place a number of valuable support services: http://www.phoenix.edu/students/how-it-works/student_experience/student_services.html (For more on the University of Phoenix, see: How does the University of Phoenix measure up?) [...]

  4. [...] to look closely at the academic side of the University of Phoenix part of the business, because Tony Bates has done a comprehensive job of assessing their results from their Annual Academic Report. He gives them an A+ compared to the rest of the system for [...]

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