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Submitted by Tim Slottow on September 15, 2015 - 3:00am
As president of University of Phoenix, I am instinctively guided to support the principles of greater access to, and better analysis of, data and information. That holds particularly true in the case of data that can help prospective students make informed choices about higher education.
So the White House’s newly released College Scorecard -- and its attendant torrent of new data on colleges -- should be a welcome move. It purports to contain a variety of information that assesses institutions on important metrics, including graduation rates and the income of graduates.
It is no secret, however, that the Scorecard has attracted widespread criticism, not least from my colleagues at large public universities, whose concerns I share regarding broader methodological flaws in it -- particularly the failure to include data on students who did not receive Title IV funds (data currently unavailable to the department under federal law). And even the data about Title IV recipients presents major challenges. They paint a skewed view of graduation rates that I believe does a particular disservice to students and prospective working adult learners -- the very people this tool should help.
Just taking University of Phoenix as an example, there is much for which my university can be proud. The data released includes findings ranking it sixth in the nation amongst large, private institutions (more than 15,000 students) in terms of the income of its graduates (and 24th among all large institutions, public and private). This adds to our institution’s latest draft three-year cohort default rate of 13.6, which is comparable to the national average.
But consider the methodology behind the graduation rates that the Scorecard cites -- arguably the most problematic flaw underlying it. For years now the U.S. Department of Education has relied on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rates, which reflect only first-time, full-time undergraduate students. By any measure, the student population of America is more diverse than those who attend college full-time and complete it in a single shot. At the University of Phoenix, 60 percent of students in 2014 were first generation, and 76 percent were working -- 67 percent with dependents. These are the type of students labeled “nontraditional” by a Department of Education that has often talked of empowering them.
Yet for the purposes of the department’s graduation rates, these nontraditional students are effectively invisible, uncounted. In 2014, University of Phoenix’s institutional graduation rate for students with bachelor’s degrees was 42 percent. The department’s new Scorecard puts that figure at 20 percent. Our institutional rates demonstrate a higher rate of student success while IPEDS provides an incomplete picture of the university’s performance. In 2014, only 9.3 percent of my university’s students were first-time, full-time students as defined by IPEDS.
These graduation data would be troubling enough were it not for the fact that they are misinforming the same students that the Department of Education claims to be helping. For our graduates, the refusal to accurately calculate these data cheapens their legitimate and hard-earned academic achievements.
Reporting on the Scorecard, National Public Radio suggested that “what the government released … isn’t a scorecard at all -- it’s a data dump of epic proportions.” That is a correct assessment that speaks to the crux of the problem. More data, in this case, is not better. In open phone calls with reporters, department officials have acknowledged the limitations of their data, seemingly citing that very acknowledgment as license to publish them anyway. Yet no such acknowledgment is made clearly on the new Scorecard’s website, where students will access the information to make their decisions.
Now that the floodgate of institutional data has been opened, however, it is incumbent on all of us to improve it, contextualize it and help interpret it so prospective students can be appropriately informed by it. Responding to the Scorecard, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called for “Congress through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to support a student-level data system for persistence, transfer, graduation and employment/income information to provide more complete data for all institutions.”
The University of Phoenix has long supported these principles and objectives -- not just in pushing for more complete data but also in making clear that the standards must be applied to all institutions of higher learning. We agree with both Republicans and Democrats who want to see more audit-ready data for every college and university so as to validate and verify the foundational basis upon which the department creates and enforces regulations that should be applied to all higher education institutions (last year’s gainful employment rules among them). More can be done to guard against potential political motivations in the presentation of public data.
For our part, University of Phoenix is also clear that we must improve student outcomes, as we generally have year over year. From significant investment in our core campuses to ensuring that first-time undergraduates complete a pathway diagnostic before enrolling in their first credit-bearing course, we are engaged in the work that will help us to continue improving those outcomes and, more generally, to transform into a better, more trusted institution.
In the year I have been president, I have met with thousands of our students and graduates -- the men and women who are the face of that nontraditional category. These are people who are achieving great academic success despite the other demands that contemporary life imposes. They are driven, ambitious, determined and hardworking. And they leave me in no doubt of two things: their success deserves to be appropriately recognized, and their successors deserve better information in picking a college. We can all play a role in securing these basic goals.
Timothy P. Slottow is president of University of Phoenix.
Last week, we learned on this site that Matt Reed’s son had recently sincerely asked this question: “Is the University of Phoenix a good school?” I have been gratified by the response from Inside Higher Ed readers -- and from Reed himself. But much is at stake in that question, especially for those we serve at the University of Phoenix -- those long underserved by traditional institutions. And I want to answer it publicly.
Is the University of Phoenix a good school? Yes. Yes, it is. And we’re working to make it an even greater school for nontraditional students everywhere. Our students expect quality, career-relevant degree and certificate programs. We’re providing instruction with dedicated faculty that bring real-world experience to the classroom. We are online and at local campuses in more than 30 states.
I came to the University of Phoenix last year from the University of Michigan. My peers in Ann Arbor came up to me and offered congratulations when they heard the news. I was told countless times, “University of Phoenix is an important institution. I’m glad you’re going there.” And a surprising number of colleagues within the UM community came to me and told me of their own positive experience, or a family member’s, at the University of Phoenix. For example, one UM student -- the first in her family to attend college -- was pursuing a graduate degree at Michigan (which she has since completed). She told me that she never would have progressed academically had it not been for the role the University of Phoenix played in her life (she completed her bachelor’s degree here).
To be sure, the institution has its complexities and challenges. But, like all schools, especially those that serve nontraditional students, we’re continuously in a mode of evaluating, assessing and working to improve student learning outcomes and the entire student experience. In 2014, the University of Phoenix awarded more than 73,000 degrees, and we’re strongly positioned to continue playing a vital role in American higher education for decades to come.
Our institution is large and well-known, yes, but it need not continue serving as shorthand for larger debates about for-profit higher education, which are often politically motivated. Our mission is to provide access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the performance of their organizations and provide leadership and service to their communities. The University of Phoenix has played an important role in higher education in this country by successfully serving nontraditional adult students at scale.
Over the past seven months, I have been spending an enormous amount of time meeting with and listening to the stories of our students and our dedicated adjunct faculty. The passion our faculty have for teaching, innovation and student outcomes is palpable. Similarly, our students’ dedication is apparent. They have told me time and time again, “It is hard work, but it is not impossible.” The reason they came to this school is not just to prepare for an occupation and career advancement, but to change the perspectives of their children, and to change the trajectory of their families for future generations. It is the individual stories of our students that I wish were amplified in the media. That’s unrealistic, of course, but I am committed to telling as many stories of our students, graduates, faculty and staff as possible.
I wish most of all that Reed’s son could have been with me in Pasadena last Friday when I met the families of the University of Phoenix graduates featured in these videos here -- graduates like Evelyn “Vonn” Banks, the former Command Master Chief for Naval Sea Systems Command. I spent time with Vonn last week. Here is how she answers the question: Yes, University of Phoenix is a great school. Vonn has had a groundbreaking career as the most senior ranking non-commissioned female officer in the U.S. Navy. Her success was made possible, in part, by the three degrees earned from University of Phoenix. She is working on a fourth degree – truly epitomizing her personal motto: “I am a Phoenix, and I never quit."
I could fill this Web site with stories like that of Vonn Banks, and we are nearing 1 million graduates of the University of Phoenix.
Reed’s son asked a sincere question. He deserves an answer and I have invited Reed to visit with us in Arizona. He will find a rigorous, career-focused, innovative curriculum that is adapted to how adult students learn and a unified team committed to high-touch, high-tech student support, focused on students’ learning and career outcomes.
At some point, I hope readers of Inside Higher Ed will stop and visit a local University of Phoenix campus before making up their minds. Spend time on phoenix.edu and consider taking a course online before summarily passing judgment.
I spoke recently at a general session of the American Council on Education (ACE) and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). They had convened in San Antonio to hear from national leaders. Before the general session began, the new president-elect of UPCEA, David Schejbal of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, stood to speak at the podium. He said, “We don’t typically talk to the for-profits,” which was met with good-natured laughter that I took as acceptance, agreement or, at least, understanding. Then he said, “We have a lot to learn from the University of Phoenix. I think that for-profits are not what we think they are. I’ve spent a lot of time with Tim Slottow, and his team’s focus on meeting the needs of adult students is really something we need to listen to.”
I am grateful for Schejbal. We have found similar leaders with open minds throughout the country. We are working closely together with a growing number of researchers at top-tier research universities and foundations who are eager to develop insights into how, together, we can measurably raise learning outcomes for all adult students. Our work with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Gates Foundation (where Bill Gates himself paid us a visit) and researchers at Stanford University is just the beginning of what I hope will be a rich experimental learning environment for all devoted to the needs of nontraditional students. That is, I believe, among the best ways to honor the memory and resilience of our founder, John Sperling.
Whether friend or skeptic, our doors are open to all those working to serve nontraditional students, especially your readers at Inside Higher Ed.
Tim Slottow became president of the University of Phoenix in June 2014. Before joining the university, he served as the executive vice president and chief financial officer at the University of Michigan.