Trouble in the Education "Business"

The University of Phoenix is having trouble (subscription) says The New York Times in an article titled “Troubles Grow for a University Built on Profits.”

As if that should be a surprise.

Many of us in education have been watching the growth of for-profit institutes of higher education with concern for quite some time. Our college and university system, after all, was built on a non-profit foundation for reasons—and those reasons were being swept aside in a rush for results—i.e., profits. As a result:

students spend 20 to 24 hours with an instructor during each course, compared with about 40 hours at a traditional university. The university also requires students to teach one another by working on projects for four or five hours per week in what it calls “learning teams.”

Do it faster and with less supervision—yes! And profits shall descend on one!

That’s not the only reason for-profit scares many educators. The fact of different constituencies, all with power in the institution, has long kept more traditional educational institutions from straying too far from concentration on their primary mission. Faculty power, for example, has kept administrations from centralizing structures. At the University of Phoenix, the role of the faculty is diminished, taking them completely out of the decision-making process:

Courses are written at university headquarters, easing class preparation time for instructors.

Though these are the words of Times writer Sam Dillon, they reflect the U of P attitude: reduce the workforce and increase the profit. The attitude completely bypasses recognition of the importance of teaching (in its full extent of preparation, class time, and evaluation) to education, recognition that the essence of teaching, the personal interaction of student and teacher, cannot be reduced to a role of “facilitation” of a program created at a distance. This was demonstrated a generation ago by the psychologists who developed the first teaching machines—almost all of whom eventually abandoned their projects to return to direct interaction with students.

On some level, even the people at U of P know this, as the following passage indicates:

Although Phoenix is regionally accredited, it lacks approval from the most prestigious accrediting agency for business schools, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

John J. Fernandes, the association’s president, said the university had never applied. “They’re smart enough to understand their chances of approval would be low,” Mr. Fernandes said. “They have a lot of come-and-go faculty. We like institutions where the faculty is stable and can ensure that students are being educated by somebody who knows what they’re doing.”

And not, the implication is, by a team of course constructors at a distant location.

Having taught, myself, for one of U of P’s competitors (though only for a couple of their short terms), I understand completely why one of the problems for all of the for-profit colleges is retention of qualified faculty. This little incident recounted in the article did not surprise me at all:

Robert Wancha, 42, a former National Guard commander who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information technology at the university’s Detroit campus, said that in a computer course last fall his instructor, Christopher G. Stanglewicz, had boasted that he had a doctorate but did little teaching, instead assigning students to work in learning teams while he toyed with his computer.

Mr. Stanglewicz, reached at his home, acknowledged that he had covered only a fraction of the syllabus , partly, he said, because the university required him to cram too much information into too few sessions.

“Students get overwhelmed,” he said. Mr. Stanglewicz asserted in the interview that he had earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Kentucky. But the authorities there said his name was not in their records. (Dr. [William] Pepicello [U of P’s President] said that Mr. Stanglewicz had never told the university that he had a doctorate, and that he was qualified to teach.)

If U of P is anything like the school where I was teaching, “qualification” is based solely on administrative evaluation of credentials along with a short course (mine was online) familiarizing the “facilitators” with institutional procedures.

What we have, ultimately, in all of these institutions is a Wizard-of-Oz educational structure, where the receipt of a degree conveys knowledge and ability. “Give me the money and I’ll give you the degree—and who’s to be the wiser” seems to be the attitude. The assumption is that a real education isn’t good for much anyway, that the only difference between the person with a diploma and the one without is that sheet of paper.

Like all of those who have benefited from a real education, I beg to differ.