'Lessons From the Edge'

March 4, 2005

Much of traditional academe doesn't know what to make of for-profit higher education. Is it to be emulated or feared? Gary A. Berg, dean of extended education at California State University Channel Islands, studied the sector -- and received extensive access to University of Phoenix administrators and faculty members. The result is Lessons From the Edge: For-Profit and Nontraditional Higher Education in America, recently published as part of the American Council on Education/Praeger Series on Higher Education.

The following are Berg's answers to some questions about his research and his book:

Q: To prepare for this book, you taught a course at Phoenix. How did the experience differ from courses you have taught at more traditional institutions?

A:  It was a vastly different experience, from beginning to end.  First, the University of Phoenix requires all to participate in a very lengthy and in-depth training program where candidates are introduced to the background of the organization and its teaching-learning model. This is followed by working very closely under the guidance of a mentor in the first actual course. The University of Phoenix, much like other open access institutions such as the British Open University, relies to a large extent on standardized course materials. Faculty members are mainly responsible for facilitating discussions and giving feedback on student work.

Recently, the University of Phoenix has moved from requiring a faculty-created weekly lecture in the online courses, to supplying this as well. However, what a tenured faculty member from a traditional university would notice most is their lessened influence.  University officials claim that the faculty at the University of Phoenix is more empowered than part-timers typically found at traditional institutions. There is some evidence of this. Certainly, I found that the university regularly asks for faculty involvement in ongoing training, faculty meetings, and to provide comment on curricular issues.  Additionally, there are some full-time faculty members who take on chair-type roles at the University of Phoenix.

However, there is nothing like a faculty senate.  Faculty members at the University of Phoenix are completely and very intentionally left out of operational decisions. Its leadership describes this as separating academic from operational decision-making so that the organization is more professionally managed and productive.

Q: You make a number of references to the culture at Phoenix. Can you describe the culture and its relationship to Phoenix's growth?

A: The culture at the University of Phoenix is an interesting mix of corporate and counter-culture elements. This surprised me, and I suspect others will also find this interesting. Those attributes of a business that one would expect such as discussions about market, educational product development, and students as customers are all there. However, many of the leaders of the organization also describe social or political motivations for their work. John Sperling, the founder, clearly comes from a background of political activism.

The other part of the culture of the University of Phoenix to note is that the leadership is collectively very driven and combative. They like seeing themselves as rebels against the higher education establishment. All of these characteristics of its culture have led to the growth at the University of Phoenix. The corporate approach has spurred them to move quickly, focus on core competencies, and operate efficiently. The combative attitude is behind both seeking to fill gaps in the higher education market, and using unconventional methods to do so.

Q: You specifically talk about the willingness at Phoenix to debate any idea. How does that compare to what you see elsewhere in academe?

A:  The leaders appear unusually willing to reconsider bedrock beliefs and practices in higher education. For instance, they have openly challenged the importance of "seat time," or direct contact with a faculty member in a classroom. Instead the University of Phoenix has argued the importance of clearly articulating learning objectives and then measuring success against those standards. In this regard, it has benefited from the general movement toward assessment in American higher education.

Another example is its challenge of tenure. Historically, the number of full-time tenure-track faculty members at an institution has been a key indicator of quality. The University of Phoenix and other for-profits argue for a practitioner model claiming that part-time faculty usage can actually lead to higher quality in particular disciplines such as business where real world experience rather than research is especially valuable to students. The leaders seem to have these essential debates and discussions constantly whether it is about seat time, tenure, or the future of the textbook in higher education.

Q: Phoenix recently announced that it would begin to offer programs for traditional-age undergraduates. Should the rest of higher education be worried?

A:  For the most part, no. However, third tier non-residential teaching institutions are likely to see increased competition. My guess is that the University of Phoenix must have noticed a large market opportunity to make such a major change in its policy, perhaps for students in the military and in their greatly expanding international market. Broadening its market represents a big change for the University of Phoenix, because one of its strengths has always been exploiting a niche market of first generation college and working adult students. Additionally, its pedagogical approach relies to a great extent on prior work and life experience -- serving younger students complicates this effort.

Q: What do you consider Phoenix's main failings or areas of weakness?

A:  Its weaknesses are a poor academic reputation, faculty, general education, and maintaining quality while growing at a fast rate.  Although scholars in the field of higher education are increasingly pointing to some of the positive things the institution does, the criticism from traditional institutions of the University of Phoenix is relentless.

Unlike Research I or even regional comprehensive universities, the University of Phoenix is unlikely to have "star" faculty members. Mostly it utilizes many of the part-time faculty members that teach at other institutions, to supplement practitioners from industry. Since it uses a practitioner approach to faculty it naturally has trouble with general education courses required for undergraduate degrees.

Finally, the extreme growth occurring at the University of Phoenix over the past decade, and the projected target of half a million students in the near future, have brought forth management problems that it is very consciously wrestling with as an organization. 

Failings? Despite its design and effort, the institution still ends up failing some students who are ill-prepared or whose personal and/or social barriers are too great to overcome. However, I would point out that this student retention failing is not unique to the University of Phoenix, and given its target population, understandable.

Q: You work at a new public university. Do you think your job and institution are different because of the growth of for-profit higher education?

A:  I would describe the institution I work at, the newest California State University, as traditional. However, because of the new environment for public universities in the United States characterized by limited resources, we are acting a little differently.

Generally, much of what the University of Phoenix and the other for-profits do is not unique. Often through extended education or continuing education units, universities have tried to meet the specific needs of adult learners, work with businesses, use distance learning technologies, and operate somewhat entrepreneurial.

How have for-profit higher education changed traditional universities? I think they have probably accelerated a general trend, rather than changed the course in American higher education at this point. Central components of the for-profit model such as increased use of part-time faculty, intensive formats, standardization, distributed and distance learning formats, an emphasis on assessment are all increasingly used in traditional universities. For-profits have come to symbolize the great transformation that is occurring in higher education, but are not the sole cause.

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