[While most of my higher education analysis has been statistical in nature, it’s important to look at qualitative and historical aspects of higher education. The collapse of University of Phoenix is one of those stories.]
From 1976 to the early 2000s, the University of Phoenix established itself as a leader in educational innovation for working adults.
Hundreds of the school’s campuses and learning sites dotted the American landscape, conveniently located near interstate off ramps. Phoenix turned hotel meeting rooms and retail spaces into learning centers for busy strivers.
For those who could not attend those schools, University of Phoenix created an online presence that was unsurpassed.
Phoenix’s founder John Sperling was considered a genius for bringing education to adult professionals and other nontraditional students. A former university professor and self-described enemy of the academic elite, Sperling became friends though with the political and business elite. Higher education’s billionaire was a notable friend of California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi--and he appeared on Oprah.
Like the prosperity preachers who filled American television, Sperling offered the keys to success to anyone who would listen. Instead of Jesus, though, he was selling higher education.
In 2007, the limitations of online education, the adjunctification of labor, and the University of Phoenix became more evident in a New York Times article that revealed the school’s subprime graduation rate.
Rather than improving educational quality, Phoenix and its parent company, Apollo Group, became all about the numbers. At the highest level, Apollo was shooting for a half million students, which sounded laudable. Apollo Group branched out into associate degrees, and it reached out to students outside North America.
But the truth is that the company had to cut corners to meet these numbers.
In a scheme called “The Matrix”, enrollment representatives were rewarded for meeting enrollment numbers. And with that, enrollment representatives would do almost anything to get asses in classes. Apollo Group’s CEO Todd Nelson took the school to its highest numbers. But these numbers would come at a cost. The school faced enormous pressure from federal and state agencies.
The 2010 Harkin Commission and Aaron Glantz’s investigations with the Center for Investigative Reporting a few years later showed Phoenix to be a school that would use any means necessary to make a profit. Phoenix became a joke in popular culture, skewered by comedians John Stewart and John Oliver.
[In recent years, University of Phoenix's Wikipedia page looked more like a criminal rap sheet than an institution of higher education.]
Today University of Phoenix is a shadow of its former self. Enrollment is down an estimated 80 percent from its peak. In 2016, Apollo Education Group was taken over by a much larger company known to buy failing companies and stripping them of assets, and then selling them at a profit. Along with the sale, friends of President Obama, Tony Miller and Marty Nesbitt, were brought in to make the deal seem to be an act of educational reform. But the school’s marketing strategy has been to look backward, at the deceased John Sperling, and the adult night classrooms that are all but gone.