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The University of Phoenix’s attempt to partner with historically black colleges is prompting a good deal of skepticism.

The for-profit Phoenix and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of public historically black colleges and their students, announced last week they had formed an “alliance” with the goal of having Phoenix teach students at HBCUs.

No colleges have yet signed a deal with Phoenix, but the potential arrangements are already drawing scrutiny, in part because of Phoenix’s relatively low graduation rates, especially for black students.

Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who leads a center that studies minority-serving institutions, said that HBCU researchers and alumni she was in contact with either immediately said the deal wasn’t a good idea or weren’t yet sure what to think. 

The deal is being billed as a way to help historically black colleges offer courses online to students that they can’t offer on campus. HBCUs typically do not have robust online programs.

Yet, Gasman said, historically black colleges do a better job of graduating their students than Phoenix does. Four-year HBCUs, which enroll some non-black students, have an average six-year graduation rate, as measured by the federal government, of 36 percent. Nationally, the graduation rate for black students is about 30 percent. Phoenix’s black graduation rate is 15 percent, though it is still graduates more black students than any other institution.

Gasman said historically black colleges might want a better partner than Phoenix.

“I am much more comfortable with an HBCU offering online courses that they develop, maybe with expertise from online providers, rather than them partnering with an institution that has, quite frankly, made its money on the back of black and brown students,” she said.

A University of Phoenix spokesman, Ryan Rauzon, called Gasman’s comments “unfortunate.”

“The mission of University of Phoenix is clear, what we’re trying to do here fulfills this mission, we also hope it helps HBCUs and Thurgood Marshall College Fund fulfill that mission, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Phoenix argues that its federal graduation rate is misleading because it only counts students who start their education at Phoenix, which only about a fifth of its students do.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s president, Johnny Taylor, said he expected the criticism before the deal was announced.

Taylor said he's been looking for online educators to work with HBCUs in an effort to elevate their online education efforts, which are widely seen as behind the curve. On the whole, HBCU enrollment has been falling. 

“It may work, and it may not, but by definition we can’t stand still because we’re losing ground every day,” he said.

The fund had briefly worked with Udacity before the Silicon Valley education technology changed its mission away from providing broad public access to higher education. About two years ago, Taylor said, the fund was approached by Phoenix's chief financial officer, Byron Jones, who graduated from Tuskegee University, a private HBCU in Alabama. 

In a phone call, Taylor laughed at a description of Gasman's point that Phoenix's graduation rates are lower than the average at HBCUs and the suggestion that working with Phoenix could impair student performance.

“That’s the most absurd argument I’ve ever heard," Taylor said. "You could say the same thing about community colleges," he said, but HBCUs accept credits from community colleges with lower graduation rates and that doesn't mean the graduation rate of a community college hurts the four-year HBCUs.

He said Phoenix offered him what he was looking for -- at least enough of it to do a test run. 

“Anyone can sit around and quibble with 'Should we have chosen a Marriott or a Sheraton' -- anyway, at the end of the day, you’re going to get a great hotel,” he said.

Students at colleges that sign deal with Phoenix are expected to be able to take Phoenix courses for the same price they would pay for a course on their campus. Phoenix would charge the college $395 per complete course, which is about $50 lower than the per-course fee that some HBCUs advertise.

The goal, the plan's backers said, is to make sure students at HBCUs have access to all the courses they need to graduate on time. Cutbacks at colleges across the country have made it hard for some students to get all the classes they need.

Phoenix’s people would also work with HBCUs to “share insights into how technology can create effective modes and means of expanding access to learning resources and collaboration.” Taylor said that means HBCU professors would be teaching some of the courses themselves.

“HBCU faculty will be teaching some of these courses; it is not simply University of Phoenix professors teaching students,” he said.

As part of the arrangement, Phoenix has agreed to donated unspecified sums to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund for scholarships.

Tiffany Jones, an analyst at the Southern Education Foundation who studies HBCUs, said she sees how historically black colleges could benefit from being able to offer more classes to students, but it’s safe to say people are “extremely suspicious at this stage.”

“There’s a lot of questions around: we just want to make sure this is something that is high quality and Phoenix isn’t seeing this just as an opportunity to access more black students they can profit from,” Jones said.

That said, most historically black colleges have fewer than 2,000 students and many have been dealing with falling enrollment. That, in turn, has forced faculty layoffs. Having a way for students to take online classes might be helpful, Jones said.

Constance Iloh, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Southern California who studies black students and for-profit colleges, said the arrangement could draw attention to the large number of black students attending for-profit higher education institutions. 

“This conversation is a timely opportunity to discuss and even examine the presence of black students in the for-profit sector,” she said. “We’re talking about the highest-enrolled racial group in the for-profit sector.”

Gasman, though, is skeptical that Phoenix is the right way to go. She also wonders whether public HBCUs will be eager to partner with a for-profit college like Phoenix.

“This is HBCUs' biggest competitor – I guess you could start to work with them, but on the other hand, they are competing with students and they are out to make a profit,” she said.


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