Pros: Offers convenient professional development, but no significant pros compared to the average community college.
Cons: Corporate community college feel, underpaid faculty, lacks the enrichment of a real university experience, etc.
I've taught science and communications at several universities and colleges. My experience has ranged from a Big Ten research university to small community colleges. When I recently re-located to the Denver area, I saw a job announcement for a part-time faculty position with the University of Phoenix and I decided to apply. Little did I know what I was in for. This review focuses on the faculty problem at the University of Phoenix, but I'll briefly describe the experience of a few students who attend this school as well.
What is the University of Phoenix?
This is a national "university" that has about 170 campuses in several states and distributes most of its coursework online, thereby reaching an international audience. They have supposedly awarded over 170,000 degrees since 1976 and have over 17,000 instructors. The University of Phoenix prides itself with being a for-profit "university", which it says keeps it customer-oriented. Actually, it just keeps it profit-oriented. I use "university" in quotes here because this is NOT a university. If they say that granting easy master's degrees or enrolling a lot of students makes them a university, then they're trying to sell you something. Make no mistake - you will not get a university education at this glorified community college. Why not? Read on...
What is the University of Phoenix's problem?
There are several, but I'm going to focus on the faculty recruitment and retention problems, since this is what I know best about this school.
When I mentioned that I was considering applying for a job at the University of Phoenix, a faculty member offered to let me sit-in on his class to get a feel for it. I had already taught at a couple small colleges and a large university, so I assumed that it wouldn't be anything new. Right from the start, I felt like I was in a different world. The business world. If you're in business, then the business world environment of the University of Phoenix will be comfortable for you the moment you walk in the door. That's exactly the moment you need to ask yourself the important question that I did - why doesn't this feel like a university? Or even a community college? Or any other type of institution of higher learning? A university "campus" isn't supposed to look like a bank or the office of some company. The campus has the important job of facilitating interaction with many different types of students and faculty in a variety of settings and in an open, non-conformist manner. You can't do this in a bank. Do all University of Phoenix "campuses" look like business parks? Maybe not, but every one that I've seen in several different parts of the country has.
Still, I decided to give the University of Phoenix another chance and I began the application process for my job. This may be difficult to believe but it's true - the interview process was so absurd that I actually quit the interview! How can you quit an interview? It wasn't just one or two meetings, it was becoming a part-time job. First, I submitted my application package, which required about two hours of filling out forms and preparing the required documents (resume, letter of interest, etc.). After a couple weeks, I received a telephone call from someone in administration asking to setup a telephone interview. I agreed and we set up a time. The following week, I had my telephone interview for about 20 minutes. They called back the next week to inform me that I had passed the telephone interview and they asked if I would come to their office for an in-person interview. I agreed and we scheduled a time for the following week. So far, this is all fairly standard for a job interview. Now it gets interesting. I've never been to a University of Phoenix campus, but I know there are several in my area. I follow the directions and end up in a giant parking lot with some gaudy business buildings in front of me and I'm lost. Clearly there is no university campus in this business park. Of course, I'm half confused and half scared when I figure out that one of the gaudy business buildings is the University of Phoenix (I later discovered that they all look like this in my area). Still, I'm not going to pass judgement until I actually go inside and check out the environment and talk to some people. Very gaudy, take the plush elevator up to some floor, through the glass doors and some over-happy Hollywood business secretary wearing several pounds of make-up greets me. I informed her I was lost and that I'm looking for the University of Phoenix and she tells me I'm not lost and now I'm really wondering what alternative universe I've stepped into. I feel like I'm in the waiting area of a plastic surgeon's office in Beverly Hills. Eventually, a man in a business suit comes out to greet me and immediately starts the small talk like we're about to broker real estate. Nothing should surprise me at this point, but it continues to. We walk through a maze of cubicles that looks like tech support for some software company. Finally, we find his cubicle (through no small miracle of navigation) and I sit almost on top of him in a 5 X 5 space. He informs me he used to be an instructor at the University of Phoenix, but now he's moved up the ladder to administration!. In his 5 X 5 telemarketing-style cubicle! The warning lights are blazing in my brain and I'm already wondering if I can find my way back to the door. Despite graduate training in geography, I know I've met my match in this cubicle hell and decide I'll need to finish the interview just so he can help me get out of this building. I'm honestly still wondering if I'm in the right place! He asks me a list of canned questions, several of which are not good indicators of potential faculty performance, and lets me see my score when I finish - 29 out of 32 or something like that. So do I have the job? No, he says, you've just begun the interview process. Now I'm stunned and have to ask how much my salary would be before I continue with this. About $1200 per course. This is well below the national average and I'm in disbelief. No health benefits, no retirement package, no vacation time. A few days later, they call to schedule another interview. This one will take several hours because I'll be presenting a mock lecture to an audience with several other applicants for various positions. Of course, it will take longer than that because I need to prepare a lecture and spend almost an hour on the road. I can't believe it, but I go along with it and try to figure out how I can get more time off from work to interview for this extremely low-paying job at the bank, I mean the University of Phoenix. After a couple days, I realize that it's just not possible, especially considering they won't reimburse me for my time or my mileage (with the next interview, I would have driven over 100 miles and lost more than 20 hours of work time). I write the following email:
I apologize for being blunt. My teaching and research schedule is too busy to be jumping through a seemingly endless set of assessment hoops. I have been interviewed twice, once in person and once over the phone, and it is my impression that I passed both interviews with relatively high marks. I have an outstanding teaching record over a period of more than five years. I am currently an instructor at two colleges in the Denver area. I am actively involved in research in my field. I would hope that all of this would be more than sufficient to be hired as an instructor, especially considering that tenure-track faculty at the top research and teaching universities are hired with less assessment and less experience.
I would love to teach for the University of Phoenix, and it is my hope that exceptions can be made to this assessment process.
Of course, I never heard a word from them again. Meanwhile, I've been hired by two other colleges to teach part-time, both of which have lower tuition and higher faculty pay than the University of Phoenix, and both of which have better reputations for providing quality education. No phone interviews, no cubicles, just brief meetings with department chairs after they've reviewed my application package. So much for the theory that more assessment will help you select better faculty. In all my contact with the University of Phoenix, I never once spoke with a faculty member, department chair, dean, or any other academic personnel. I spoke only with secretaries and human resources personnel. That alone will discourage a lot of good faculty from teaching at the University of Phoenix. With such pathetic pay and no benefits whatsoever, the faculty that are employed are likely to leave whenever they can get any half-decent job anywhere else, and this is what my friend did. This is exactly the type of loyalty that a lot of corporate America encourages, and that's exactly what the University of Phoenix is - corporate.
What are some other problems with the University of Phoenix?
Enough about faculty, what about the students? So far, I've just spoken theoretically about the impact of faculty recruitment and retention on education, but what is the reality for students? I ride the bus to work everyday and I get to talk with a lot of students from a lot of colleges around the area. With the University of Phoenix being as active as it is in my area, I've had the opportunity to meet two current students and one graduate from this school. Every time I meet someone who has attended the University of Phoenix, I ask them about the "95% high level of satisfaction" rate that the school claims to have. Every time, the response has been laughter. No one I've spoken with has said they were satisfied with the quality of education at the University of Phoenix. One student was dropping out at the end of the semester and trying to get her courses to transfer to the local campus of a state school. She wasn't having much success because they didn't feel that the University of Phoenix's courses were up to par with their own. Another student had such a bad experience that he was thinking about dropping out of college all together. Finally, a student who had graduated from the University of Phoenix said that it was really just one big professional development conference. He enrolled to give himself more skills and to try to get into the next higher pay bracket, but he said he never felt like he was really getting a degree. It should be noted that his first degree was from a small state school with no online coursework.
The University of Phoenix is an accredited institution, but mostly because it offers degrees which require minimal classroom instruction and minimal levels of conceptual sophistication. An MBA is not a real master's degree and everyone knows it. You are not spending two years taking advanced courses and doing your own research to write a master's thesis that demonstrates your ability to think independently, apply your knowledge to novel situations, and contribute something unique to your field. Nor is a Ed.D. in Educational Leadership a real doctorate. If this school decided to offer degrees in something like physics or journalism or geology, it would 1) promptly loose its accreditation or 2) become the running joke in academia. This is not a university and it should parade itself as such.
Enough with the negative, what are the positive aspects of the University of Phoenix?
Unfortunately, based on my experience and interactions with other faculty and students, there is nothing that really sets the University of Phoenix apart from the average community college. Online courses are always less-enriching than traditional classroom courses, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something of value to be obtained from online coursework. However, when combined with the University of Phoenix's faculty problems and their for-profit business model, you'll be mostly paying for a degree, not earning a degree. Eventually, as the truth about the University of Phoenix gains more light, a degree from this school will probably mean less and less. Can the University of Phoenix at least provide some professional development? Sure, a few courses in your occupational area will help you learn some things you didn't know before. Just don't fool yourself into thinking you're getting a university degree. And don't let them talk you into that either.
The bottom line: somebody is getting rich off this "university" and it's not the students in terms of their education, and it's not the faculty in terms of their pay or the tools they're given to enrich students' lives. So what's the alternative? Look into your local community college or local private college. In either case, I'm willing to bet you'll get a better education, especially if you limit the amount of online courses you take. Of course, the University of Phoenix no longer has a monopoly in online courses - if you absolutely need those, they are available just about anywhere.