• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


“Dad, Is the University of Phoenix a Good School?”

Reputations and higher ed.



February 8, 2015

This weekend The Boy and I went on a brief roadtrip in service of a robotics tournament that wound up being cancelled. (New England is under its third repent-your-sins storm warning in the past two weeks.) A few hours in the car each way gave us a chance for some free-ranging conversation. When you have hours of free-range conversation with a thirteen-year-old, you never know what you’re going to get.

I’m lucky that he’s a smart, inquisitive, good-natured, and well-spoken kid. This wasn’t the tortured series of eye-rolls that some parents would get. That said, he hit me with a question I wasn’t prepared for.

“Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?”

We had been talking about basketball and the various different sports that he might or might not play in high school. So far his favorites are basketball and baseball, and I encouraged him to look into cross-country running. He’s up to a size 14 shoe and counting, and skinny as a rail, so I could see him running for hours. We agreed that football is fun to watch, but it’s hard to enjoy because of all the brain damage being done to the players. I told him that I didn’t want him playing football because his meal ticket in life would be his brain, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his meal ticket. From there, the discussion turned to college.

TB: Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?

Me: NO!

TB: (surprised) Really?  Why not?

I admit that I should have handled this one better. In my defense, it was dark, and late, and I was half-listening to him and half-listening to the GPS trying to direct us to the hotel.  

Me: It’s a for-profit.  Sometimes they make compromises to make money.

TB: How do you know?

Me: I used to work at a for-profit.  

TB: Is your college for-profit?

Me: No, it’s public.  Publics are non-profit.

TB: So for-profits are bad?

Reader, I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.

Me: They don’t have to be, but they usually are.  

TB: So how do you know the good ones from the bad ones?

I punted.

Me: Well, I spend most of my time obsessing about colleges, so I know about their reputations. You can do better.


Among specialists in the field, it’s easy to assume a certain set of background knowledge, and usually a certain set of shared assumptions. Those can be flawed, of course, but they form the basis of things-you-don’t-have-to-explain.  

Talking with a bright, inquisitive kid without that frame of reference, though, I couldn’t help but notice his surprise at my response (and the vehemence with which it was delivered). Other than Harvard and MIT, he mostly bases his sense of colleges on whether he has heard of them repeatedly or not. By that standard, UofP does quite well.  It hosted the Super Bowl without even having a football team! Not many colleges can say that.

The conversation stuck with me, though.  Wise and worldly readers, I need your help.  Leaving aside my (admittedly knee-jerk) answer on Phoenix particularly, what would be a fair basis for answering a thirteen-year-old’s question about whether college X is a good school?  How would we know?  I’m looking for something a little more rigorous than “because I said so,” but not quite at the level of, say, PIRS. 

I may have missed the mark on this one, but The Girl is only a few years behind.  I’d like to handle the question more gracefully when it comes back.  


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