By Richard Vedder
I should start out by saying I have no stock in the University of Phoenix (Apollo). The New York Times had an unflattering profile of the school recently, and UOP has vigorously refuted it, saying the story is full of inaccuracies. I cannot assess that argument, although my own dealings with the reporter writing the story (Sam Dillon) have always been favorable with respect to accuracy.
UOP says 50-60 percent of their students graduate (typical of U.S. universities), while the Times says the figure is 16 percent. This is a factual matter that should be resolvable. But the graduation rates amongst non-traditional students or those attending two years institutions is generally much lower than for traditional four year schools in any case. Many of UOP's students are in graduate programs, which for mainline schools typically show high attrition rates similar to undergraduate instruction. At community colleges, if 30 percent of a new class has graduated with an Associate Degree within four years, they are pretty happy.
UOP is not perfect, and the profit imperative may lead them to do less than admirable things, but the same thing can be said about traditional universities that waste resources and aim more to satisfy the staff rather than meet social needs in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, it is interesting the UOP received accreditation. If the school is so deficient, why was it accredited? What do accreditors do, other than spend resources? Intel has decided not to support student employees attending UOP, which is its right and may even be appropriate. Intel, in effect, is engaging in a form of accreditation of its own. Perhaps private industry should form its own accrediting group to do meaningful evaluation of institutions -- a sort of Underwriters Laboratories for employers that evaluates universities, not electrical safety.
Having said that, UOP is filling a useful niche. Their enrollments are high precisely because they provide a need that traditional schools largely ignore; they pay attention to costs, and realize that for most students what is important is getting a job, so they have put resources into job placement of graduates. They teach courses where and when students want them, not when and where a spoiled tenured faculty member condescends to teach them. Now UOP and other for-profits are facing increased competition from the non-profits, who are taking a lesson out of the playbook of schools like UOP. And that is all to the good. Competition in higher education has the same positive effects that it has in nearly all human endeavors. And, UOP may be finding that there are limits to cost reductions that can be made without sacrificing quality in a way that drives too many customers away.
One issue: how many hours of instruction does one need to receive credit? Wick Sloane has bugged me about this, and he is right. Why is the 40-45 hour block of instruction that we typically use optimal --in all cases? Shouldn't we teach some things for 15 hours, others for 60? We do that some in higher education, but not enough. Is UOP's 20-25 hours of instruction per class a sign that they teach little, or a sign that they are more efficient in conveying knowledge? This is worth investigating.