Shaky report card

University of Phoenix gets poor grades, but challenges that assessment

BOOSTERS<br> Margie Mitchell (left) and Tim Sonnenburg are taking a class from instructor Paige Shurtliff at the University of Phoenix’s Chico location. Although all three are satisfied with courses in Chico, the university as a whole has been under attack, most recently by a New York Times article.

Margie Mitchell (left) and Tim Sonnenburg are taking a class from instructor Paige Shurtliff at the University of Phoenix’s Chico location. Although all three are satisfied with courses in Chico, the university as a whole has been under attack, most recently by a New York Times article.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Online reading:
Read the New York Times article at Search for “University of Phoenix.” Also read news, reviews, rants and raves at The school’s official site is

The University of Phoenix, a regionally accredited school that gets little respect from those not enrolled or employed there, has had its share of the spotlight lately, what with a front-page New York Times article blasting the institution for money-grubbing and low graduation rates.

While many of the university’s students, at least in the Chico area, seem satisfied with their education, the value of their degrees seems to be headed in a downward spiral.

The Times story, published Feb. 11 ("Troubles Grow for a University Built on Profits,” by Sam Dillon), accuses the school, run by the publicly traded Apollo Group, of providing a disservice to its students by putting the bottom line above academics. Among the issues highlighted were its high number of part-time faculty—95 percent—and a low graduation rate, at 16 percent. The average graduation rate at traditional universities is 55 percent.

The school, one of just a few for-profit institutions, has faced similar criticism for years. “We’re kind of used to it,” said Bob Oeff, Sacramento Valley campus director. “The university has always been very innovative and on that front-burner.”

The University of Phoenix immediately responded to the Times article with a statement on its Web site, offering a rebuttal to what it called “factual errors and misrepresentations.” The majority of its students transfer into the school, it read, and the federal standard “requires universities to report only those students with no prior college experience.” Therefore, it concluded, the 16 percent figure is a misrepresentation of how many students actually finish their degrees there.

No graduation statistics are available for the North Valley Learning Center in Chico, which is part of the Sacramento Valley campus, as it has been open for only two years, Oeff said.

The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, is the largest private university in the country, with 300,000 students. It aims at those employed full-time who want to advance their degrees, so most of its classes are held either online, at the students’ convenience, or “on ground,” at one of the 250 campuses and learning centers. Faculty are likewise typically full-time employees elsewhere and are encouraged to bring their real-world experience into the virtual or physical classroom.

But time with each instructor—students take one class at a time, and classes span five weeks each—is limited. The New York Times reports that in 2000, the school paid $6 million in a settlement with the U.S. government, which argued that the 20 to 24 hours spent with an instructor for each course was not enough to qualify for federal aid. Those requirements have since been relaxed.

The amount of part-time faculty at the university—95 percent, compared with 47 percent at traditional schools—has also been scrutinized. The school is regionally accredited, but not acknowledged by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the most prestigious accreditation agency for business schools. The association’s president, John J. Fernandes, told the Times that the university’s chances of gaining its approval would be low, in large part because of its “come-and-go faculty.”

This lack of AACSB accreditation is one reason why leading technology company Intel Corp. recently decided it would no longer pay for its employees to attend the university, an indication that a degree from the University of Phoenix is losing clout. Chico State is among almost 550 schools worldwide that have received a business accreditation from the AACSB.

Though so many of its instructors are part time, the University of Phoenix boasts that all of them carry at least a master’s degree. “They really emphasize getting instructors from the field,” said Paige Shurtliff, a social worker and therapist from Redding who teaches a class Monday nights at the Chico center. “And they encourage us to talk about our jobs, which is invaluable [to the students].”

A recent Monday-night class brought only three students, but they expressed appreciation for the school and Shurtliff’s teaching. “We’re taking this class on proposal design and grant writing,” said Margie Mitchell, a full-time worker and single mother. “Our instructor has written many, many grants—her experience makes a huge difference.”

There are about 400 faculty members who serve the 11 locations in the Sacramento Valley, and many teach at more than one campus or moderate online courses, Oeff said. Of those 400, 20 percent are considered full time. But the number of students and faculty who call the Chico center home base, including those who attend classes exclusively online, is unknown. “The Apollo Group Inc., the parent company of the University of Phoenix, provides enrollment information and surrounding detail out as a whole and not on a per-location basis,” Oeff explained in an e-mail.

“Before we opened the Chico location we had a lot of faculty up there,” Oeff said. According to another employee, who wished to remain anonymous, some of the instructors in the area also are professors at Chico State. Most schools—including Chico State and Butte College—gain bragging rights by presenting credentials, but not a single name of a University of Phoenix instructor was available either online or through speaking with university officials.

The Times article just added fuel to a fire that has been burning for years. Numerous Web sites, most notably, are dedicated to bashing the university and include rants and raves from students, former students, faculty, staff and casual observers. Some complain about enrollment counselors. Others call the school a “degree mill.”

Oeff’s response to those complaints is, “There’s always different levels of competency when students come in. A lot of our students are working professionals. A lot of their competency levels are a lot higher than an 18- or 19-year-old’s. They have experience that they’ve already drawn from.”

As for enrollment counselors, students have complained of being told misinformation that sold them on the school. The university paid $9.8 million to settle a lawsuit filed by two California employees who claimed they were compensated based on how many students they recruited, the Times reported. Though the university admitted no wrongdoing, the issue leads to questions of whether the bottom line—and ultimately the stockholders—are more important than the education provided. Stock in Apollo Group (APOL) peaked in 2004, but has steadily declined, hitting a low point in November 2006 and rising ever so slightly since.

Not everyone is dissatisfied with their experiences, however. The school is a valuable resource to those who cannot afford to attend a more traditional school with classes during the day. It also requires that students who attend class one day a week to meet with a group between sessions to supplement their learning.

“I went to Butte College for my AA [degree]. I was so disconnected at Butte,” said Valerie Stiles, who said she enjoys the “learning team” model. “My four-person group is nothing but professional, but we come from all walks of life. I feel more connected to Phoenix … though it is pricey for me.”

The average per-year cost at the University of Phoenix is a little over $9,000, which is half that of a private four-year college and twice that at a traditional public school. In a separate suit, the University of Phoenix is accused of “fraudulently obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid,” the Times reported. The school has received more federal student aid money than any other in the country—$1.8 billion in 2004-05.

At the end of the day, the University of Phoenix’s reputation isn’t looking too rosy. It offers what many students and faculty believe to be a valuable education. But its value to the general public—including potential employers—is hanging on the edge.