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A Degree from a Proprietary School? Is it worth the cost?

Reader Robin commented on Thursday’s post, “It Never Rains but It Pours,”

Off topic, but I watched Frontline’s investigative piece on corporate higher education (i.e., The University of Phoenix among others) last night and found it dismaying. Couldn’t help wondering how you felt about this burgeoning overlap of academia, corporate America and Wall Street.

This program aired on May 4, 2010. Anyone who’s interested in the state of higher education, who’s thinking about pursuing a degree at the University of Phoenix, Argosy, or a similar institution, or who has a son or daughter contemplating a program in one of these schools should watch it.

Graduation ceremony at Oxford

@ Robin: The University of Phoenix is huge. At 450,000 students it is now the largest university in Arizona, Michael Crow‘s pretensions to empire notwithstanding. It’s popular among people who want a degree for no other reason than to get a job or a promotion, because most or all of the coursework is online, few gen-ed courses are required, and the courses are very easy.

A friend is teaching an online course through UofP. Pay is even worse than in the community colleges. To give you an idea, at Paradise Valley Community College I earn $2400 for sixteen weeks of work. The course she teaches is a watered-down version of freshman comp. The amount of attention it demands is so slight she manages to hold down a full-time editorial job at Arizona State University, a part-time job tending bar, and a substantial freelance contract from a huge textbook publisher and still “teach” UofP courses.

UofP classes are canned courses: management gives the instructor a ready-made syllabus and a ready-made set of assignments with ready-made rubrics. Then they sit the instructor down and explain exactly how the course is to be conducted and how the assignments are to be graded. So there’s no room for flexibility, no room to communicate any research expertise, no room for much of anything. It is, in short, as a can of Green Giant peas to a basket of garden peas fresh off the vine. However, there are some reputable programs out there, such as DeVry’s business management program; you just have to sift through the suspect schools. Reputable sources such as U.S. News‘s “Best Colleges 2012” review online and part-time programs of this nature.

I do think this strategy represents the wave of the future for higher education, and probably in time for secondary education, too. Although mounting courses online is expensive, once you have it all in the can, running the operation is cheap: you don’t have to hire tenurable faculty, you don’t have to provide office space and computers or any other support for faculty, you don’t have to build classrooms. You don’t even need full-time faculty at all. Hence no expensive benefits.

And students love online courses. When I first started teaching online—I created the first fully online course in my college—I was astonished at the number of people who swarmed to get in. Offer a course online, and it fills in two days. So, these enterprises are potential engines of great wealth for their proprietors, some of whom are already billionaires.

Indeed, Arizona State University President Crow so likes the model that he regards these proprietary schools as direct competition and is moving to go head-to-head with them. Arizona State offers a number of online degrees—you can now get an MBA with ASU’s relatively prestigious name attached without ever entering a brick-and-mortar classroom. Online courses are offered in almost every department, and some of them have no caps. One adjunct writing instructor was assigned an upper-division course in Writing for the Professions that ended up with 400 students in one section! Under those conditions, of course, the quality of education students receive from a state university will be no better than what is described in the Frontline documentary.

Few employers care where rank-and-file white-collar or even middle-management workers get their degrees. I know people who have obtained master’s and doctoral degrees through proprietary online “universities” and then walked into high-paying jobs. One of my former students, who can’t write her way out of a paper bag, wouldn’t recognize a comma splice if it bit her on the ankle, and knows nothing about literature or writing, got herself an M.A. from a London-based for-profit online school and forthwith landed a full-time job teaching English at a Maricopa County college, where average salaries range from $63,000 to $68,000. Another got an online Ed.D. and was promoted at Arizona State to assistant dean, a job paid upwards of $70,000, depending on your department.

On the other hand, obviously if you’re training to be a nurse and your clinical is at a day-care center, as four of the former students of one proprietary school report, you’re not going to get a job. And just as obviously, if you aim for an elite career in business or government, you need a real degree from an elite school. You don’t see any U.S. presidents or cabinet members who graduated from Arizona State University or the University of Phoenix. But if you’re just going to be a working schlep, counting the days to retirement? Meh…maybe. Still, if it’s six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, why not take an online program at far less cost from a public school?

The problem is, these proprietary outfits pass themselves off as “private” schools and charge commensurately for tuition. Undergraduate tuition for an online degree at Grand Canyon University, which is mentioned in the documentary, ranges from $250 to $415 a credit hour: given a typical 120 hours for an undergraduate degree, a B.A. at this place could set you back $30,000 to $49,800! This will leave you strapped for cash, deep in debt, and with no guarantee of a job.

Graduate tuition rates at private nonproprietary schools are even higher. Over a year ago, a young friend of my son graduated with a master’s of international management from the Thunderbird School for Global Management, a school that has a decent reputation. Payments on her student loans are $1,400 a month. She’s never been able to get a job. She had to move back in with her mother and is now earning under-the-table cash by harvesting marijuana seasonally for a California grower. And that’s with a degree from a high-ranking private school.

Proprietary schools, which are anything but high-ranking, can be enormous rips. The quality of their education is highly suspect. At one point I had a client who hired me to turn her dissertation into English; she was pursuing a doctorate at Argosy University. Her dissertation was extremely weak. Sections of the document that made no sense and reflected no credible research were accepted, and it soon became clear that her chair was simply pushing her paper through to move her out of the program. Unable to get into Arizona State’s graduate program because of her inadequate preparation, she was so anxious to obtain a doctorate—largely, she admitted, for reasons of ego—that she was willing to pay extravagantly for it, and to hire someone else to rewrite her dissertation under the guise of “editing” it. This woman was going to end up with a degree that would leave her no better trained or educated than when she started and would qualify her for nothing.

Students who seek vocational degrees tailored to help them land specific kinds of jobs would do far better to attend community colleges and universities. Many decent public schools now offer a broad choice of online courses and even entire programs conducted online. If your grades and test scores are too low to get you into a university at the outset, two years at a community college will generally qualify you for entry at the junior level. Compare a community college’s $71-per-credit-hour cost with Argosy’s breathtaking $510. A fully online undergraduate program at Arizona State will cost you $3,980 for twelve credit hours, or $331.66 per credit hour. Take yourself in person to the campus, and the cost is a bit lower, $3,423 for anything over 7 credit hours; for a 12-credit semester, that works out to $285.25 per credit hour.

Costs are still very high, but nothing like the gouge from a proprietary school. And an established public college or university does have a tradition of legitimate teaching and faculty who are paid decent salaries to teach, do research, and share knowledge creatively with the next generation.

That is different—way different—from what you’ll get from a course that comes out of a can.

2 thoughts on “A Degree from a Proprietary School? Is it worth the cost?”

  1. Thanks for taking this subject on so thoroughly. I was sure you’d have insights aplenty and you didn’t disappoint. In fact, you filled in a number of holes in Frontline’s coverage.

    Prior to viewing the program, my exposure to UofP was limited to the intrusive presence of their ads on sites like On seeing those, I’d think degree-by-mail and wonder why anyone would go that route. I assumed it was a matter of convenience and cost, presuming it to be a lower cost option. Wrong, very wrong. I also figured that a degree from a source like that would have little credibility. Wrong again, as your argument that a UofP degree might pass muster for entry-level or middle-management positions is sadly believable on closer consideration.

    Higher education meets Wall Street, how lovely and just what we need at this point: a new opportunity for exploitation of the masses.

    I’m heartsick for your son’s friend, by the way. I never imagined I could write these words, but I hope marijuana harvesting proves lucrative for her. $2,400 per month in student loans with only a piece of paper to show for it? OMG. My son will graduate from a public university next May. He’s taking the L-SAT in June, fully expecting to attend law school in September of 2011. I am so very fearful about the debt he’ll have to take on for that purpose. I’d love to believe the Bush-Cheney recession will be an unhappy memory in four years but I can’t seem to locate the blind faith and optimism of my youth.

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