At least we’re better than University of Phoenix

    We’re minding our own business. Maybe we’re surfing the Web or checking e-mail with a typically placid mindset; perhaps we’re enjoying what free time we have by going through our everyday computer routine. La dee da … an e-mail message from a friend, news from CNN.com … and then bam. Our calmness instantly explodes into fury as a dreaded, yet extremely familiar image fills the screen. A pop-up from the University of Phoenix again. We’d punch the screen if it wouldn’t ruin the LCD. These ubiquitous, obnoxious, colorful pop-ups are just the beginning. Other goodies in the lovely arsenal of in-your-face annoyances courtesy of UoP include the spam that clogs up e-mail accounts and the flashing ads on the top of every Web page. The school’s advertisements pervade the Internet like Starbucks on a city block.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but after I spotted one of those messages in my inbox for the seven-trillionth time, I was ready to stuff this Phoenix and pin it to a wall. At the same time, I was a little bit curious. How the heck does a “university” have enough money to plaster the Internet with its ads? Is it possible to actually earn bachelors, masters and even doctorate degrees online? Do companies actually take degrees earned through UoP — online or through its “campuses” — seriously? What kind of people attend UoP?

    As a student at a “real” and “traditional” university, I became intrigued that anybody could get a degree without ever stepping into a classroom. For all my irritation with its blitzkrieg of ads, the mysterious University of Phoenix had started to make me wonder. The marketing gurus behind corporate America had lured me into at least exploring its Web site.

    What is the University of Phoenix? It’s the country’s largest private university, enrolling almost 270,000 students and offering over 50 degrees in business, education, health and technology. Unlike UCSD, which offers liberal arts majors like history and linguistics, as well as vocational ones such as engineering and pharmacological chemistry, all of UoP’s degrees are vocational, similar to those of DeVry Institute.

    UoP online students (most anybody with a credit card and a computer will be “admitted”) take classes via their computers and receive degrees based on those classes. It costs $460 per credit hour, or $34,000 for an undergraduate degree. Comparably, tuition for in-state students is about $30,000 for four years at UCSD.

    As mentioned before, the University of Phoenix is an educational institution/business that exists to turn a profit. While UCSD, Harvard and all the other universities we’ve come to know also make money, they are commonly perceived as nonprofit institutions that revolve around research, development, scholarship and public service. The Apollo Group, the parent company of University of Phoenix, on the other hand, made close to $1.8 billion last year in revenues by dishing out education, according to a January Business Week article. It is no surprise that it spent 22.5 percent of its revenue on advertisements last year. The ads seem to have worked.

    Name recognition is no problem. It seems the school has bought every possible URL related to its name. When I Googled the school, about a dozen distinct yet related links to their Web site came up. For example, there was ClassesUSA.com, which linked back to UoP. And that was only in the “sponsored advertisements” column!

    Sure, that might be perfectly harmless, but is UoP just like UCSD — with marketing clout?

    The mix of profitability and education hints that UoP is more equivalent to Kaplan or Princeton Review and educational consulting than to UCSD. For now, UoP online caters mostly to working adults who are looking for a boost in their careers, but will also be looking to attract high school grads and international students in the future, according to Business Week.

    This seems somewhat problematic to me. I understand that there are a lot of adults out there who feel the need to obtain more skills through the convenience of the Internet, but I fear the day when high school students start logging online for their degrees rather than applying to legitimate schools. If we are only in school to learn the skills that will help us make a profit, then why don’t we all just stay home and enroll at UoP?

    UoP also has physical campuses across the country, so I will concede that much. Even still, though, the idea of education as a product seems somewhat sacrilegious. We complain about the ever-escalating fees in the UC system, but no one ever seriously questions the quality of the institution. Most of us trust that our professors are experts in their field and work at a university because they are passionate about their subjects, even if they don’t seem to care too much about us (undergrads, at least). There is something about UoP’s brazen interpretation of education-as-business, on the other hand, that cheapens the idea of going to college.

    Additionally, it appears that UoP has been at least a little bit shady, as I had hypothesized earlier. The Arizona Republic reported last year that, according to a 45-page report by the Department of Education, the UoP was forced to pay $9.8 million to settle an audit that revealed unfair business practices. The $9.8 million is the largest fine the feds have ever had to impose on a school. According to the report, recruiters worked under extreme pressure to bring enrollment numbers up and were encouraged with incentives to recruit unqualified students. The point of this is that 60 percent of UoP’s tuition revenue comes from financial aid, which gives the school an incentive to enroll as many students as possible. That would also explain the reason for the high visibility the university has online: to draw more customers — er, I mean students — in.

    I’m sure UoP helps many adults get a better foothold on their professions. I don’t think there’s anything egregious or completely condemnable about what UoP does. But I have to admit, whenever I close that pop-up or delete that e-mail, I’m just a little more grateful for UCSD.

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