Phoenix's New Market: Training College Leaders

October 19, 2007

Many an academic has speculated about whether the University of Phoenix was poised to take over higher education. Even with a difficult year of late, the growth of the for-profit giant over the last decade has been tremendous, leaving small liberal arts colleges, public universities and others wondering what would happen when Phoenix came to town.

As it turns out, Phoenix is now eying the administrators of colleges (and that means traditional colleges of all types, not for-profit campuses) as students. This week, the university announced that it has received permission from its accreditor to offer its first two Ph.D. programs and one of them is in higher education administration. While some academics at elite college look down on doctorates in higher education administration (or other fields outside traditional disciplines), such programs are popular for mid-level administrators who want to advance to senior levels and plenty of prominent universities offer the programs (Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Pennsylvania, for example).

Phoenix's program, which could be enrolling students as early as this spring, will be largely online, but students will gather in person at various locations for a few days at the beginning of courses. The program is being designed so that students, while enrolled full time, can also continue with duties in their various campus positions, and hope to finish a doctorate in 3.5 years. (Tuition rates have not been set yet, but are likely to be typical of Phoenix's approach on pricing, which would come out more than public universities, but in some cases less than elite privates.)

"We had would-be learners coming to us and asking for this program," said Jeremy Moreland, associate dean of Phoenix's School of Advanced Studies. He said that faculty hiring was still going on, and that it was premature to release those names.

Course offerings won't be significantly different from those in other programs. A preliminary list of courses includes instruction in communication skills, the history of education, the philosophy of education, statistics, ethics, higher education finance, higher education law, and so forth. Most of the courses are broadly defined, but there are also specific courses on student affairs, community colleges, diversity in higher education and other topics. Moreland said that while trends in for-profit higher education (and Phoenix) would come up, there was no plan to emphasize those issues.

Jorge Klor de Alva, who is senior vice president for academic excellence at Phoenix, said that "the intent of this program is not to produce talented managers to run our campuses. I would be very, very surprised if any would end up with that as their ambition or their goals. This program is to train people to be managers in different kinds of settings. They won't be trained in University of Phoenix administration."

Asked about qualities that would distinguish Phoenix's program from others, Klor de Alva stressed that that program would seek to produce administrators with "flexibility" because senior college leaders need "the ability to adapt and think on their feet rather than a more bureaucratic education."

Klor de Alva, who came to Phoenix after a successful academic career teaching in elite research universities (Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley), said he wasn't worried that the skepticism some educators have for Phoenix would hold back the program. He noted Phoenix's success in educating school administrators, and the fact that people were asking for the program. He did acknowledge, however, that Phoenix has been criticized for "not producing new knowledge" and said that the university would soon be announcing grants from a new research center it is creating to support its faculty members in doing research.

How will the Phoenix program be viewed by those who might hire its graduates and its competitors? Opinions vary. John Rouche, who runs the Texas program that trains community college leaders, said that he doesn't think Phoenix's for-profit status is going to be a key issue. He noted that other for-profit institutions, such as Walden University, already have been offering higher education doctorates. Rouche said he wasn't sure if Phoenix could offer as much as programs like his when much of the Phoenix instruction will be online. The Texas program is based on cohorts studying together, and graduates are known for their tight cohesion.

At the same time, Rouche said he realized that there are many people who want a higher education Ph.D. who can't take the leaves that would be required for a resident program. "The University of Phoenix has a fine reputation nationally, and I believe a well designed program would be
well received," he said.

Donald E. Heller, director of Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said that "there's certainly a market" for these programs, and the market appears to be growing. "For a lot of positions, people expect a terminal degree," he said. The question, he said, will be whether Phoenix will "expand the market or take from others," but he added that "I think they will find a market for this."

Heller said that the Phoenix name may be tough, since many in academe don't view the university as they do other institutions of higher education. Much of Phoenix's success to date, he said, has been in educating people in the business world or school teachers or civil servants who are not focused on the prestige of their degrees. Many Phoenix students work in fields where a master's degree earns a raise "whether they are getting that degree from Penn or Penn State or Phoenix," he said. In higher education, "it's going to be harder because higher education is so focused on status and prestige," he said.

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