For-profit universities and technical schools are in the news again. It seems the US government is unhappy with the ability of students of these universities to repay student loans. Instead of changing the lending requirements for applying borrowers (or exiting the student loan business altogether), the government has decided neither they nor the students are to blame. That only leaves the universities to blame.
Before these institutions are penalized, however, I would like to give a review of my experience with them. First, some background:
I started my undergraduate studies at Purdue University. In my first year I was blessed with the news of the coming birth of my first child. Since I was paying my own way and tuition for out-of-state students was going to increase, I knew I would have to transfer to a less expensive school. I returned home to Cincinnati, and after working fulltime for a year, I convinced my employer to share my tuition costs for evening classes. I continued my education at a regional college here in the Cincinnati area: Northern Kentucky University (NKU). As I reached the higher classes, I began to have difficulty scheduling the classes I needed, and my work schedule was commanding more and more travel. By this time my wife and I had two children and my career was becoming demanding, but I knew I had to finish. Online classes seemed the only way, and The University of Phoenix (UOP) was the leading innovator for that model. I finished the last 19 months by taking classes online.
While I have actually had some snicker at the school listed on my diploma, I can honestly say I gained tremendous advantages by finishing with UOP. Some of the advantages were unique to other opportunities online classes afforded me, and some of the advantages are true of any student truly desiring to learn. My experience with Purdue and NKU also allows me to make some comparisons. Here are a few of the advantages I found with UOP:
- Mobility – This is the main reason I believe many students choose UOP. I joined in class discussions from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, South Carolina, and Ohio. (I told you work was demanding more travel.) Even better, I could join in discussions while at the in-laws, grandparents, or during lunchtime. Bear in mind, this was before the massive spread of web-enabled mobile phones and devices, and I expect 3G and 4G networks have only increased the mobility of students.
- Diversity – Diversity at large state universities seems to be ethnically defined. Purdue was a very diverse university, ethnically at least. Below the surface, however, there was little diversity. There were no poor international students. I don’t recall meeting any grandmothers in my classes. At least half of the students were from alumni families, which were usually upper-middle class American. NKU was even less diverse. Being a regional school with little to attract students from outside the area, the classes were filled with white, middle class, young students. UOP was completely different. Most of my classes only included, at best, one other student from Ohio, and every class I remember had international students who were taking classes from their home countries. Many of us traveled for business. Many classes had older students who were returning to school for career change. I don’t remember there ever being a topic everyone in the class agreed on.
- Focus – The students at UOP were attending classes online for a variety of reasons, but none of those reasons included having nothing better to do. Every single mom, businessman, career-switcher, and bus-boy was focused. We studied. We applied. We got the job done. If you didn’t deliver and deliver on time, your teammates moved on without you.
- Information management – UOP forces you to learn to filter information. With dozens to hundreds of discussion posts each day for each class and enormous access to research, I learned to filter the noise and find what I needed. I remember returning from a 5 day vacation to 2300 new emails in my work inbox. My coworkers were in shock, but I was able to work through all of it, responding and tasking as necessary, after just two days. Without UOP, I would not be as affective at handling the enormous amount of information generated and available in the modern workplace.
- Teams – If you cannot collaborate, you will fail every class at UOP. Period. The ability to work with and learn from others is the single greatest asset an employee can have, and UOP graduates have it.
- Professors – There are no tenured professors who are primarily interested in publishing their next paper or book.
There are, of course, disadvantages to attending class online. As you look around the web, you will undoubtedly find many negative opinions. The two most legitimate concerns are the lack of prestige and the lack of networking. Prestige was a major concern of mine as I exited high school, but I am less concerned with it now. Your professional reputation will not be dependent on the school you attend, and the few people that have laughed at my degree also tended to be self-conscience about being ineffective in their management positions. Lack of networking is the most legitimate concern. I do not communicate with former classmates, and being a younger institution, there are not many grey-haired executives who graduated from UOP “in the good ol’ days.” Other UOP alumni might have been more successful at staying connected, but I think the design of the classes makes it difficult to form long-term bonds.
Overall, attending a for-profit university was a good choice for me. While I doubt I would return to UOP for my masters, I have no regrets. (Prestige and networking are more important when selecting a graduate school.) I hope students of for-profit universities continue to be afforded the same access to loans and grants as other students.
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