How Do Public Universities Answer the Phoenix Challenge?
Today, American universities are the envy of the rest of the world.
So, until a few years ago, were American auto manufacturers. Could our universities fall from the top of the ladder the way General Motors did - arrogant, loaded down with costs, and with products unrelated to changing market trends?
I was worrying about this possibility the other day when a nationally syndicated "stock picking" column in The Durham Herald Sun caught my eye.
A reader wrote to columnist Malcolm Berko, "I recently hired a University of Phoenix graduate over a University of Florida graduate because I felt the Phoenix student would give me more bang for my buck in our accounting department. I'm interested in owning shares of this for-profit school because I think they do a superb job preparing people for the business world."
Berko responded, "[T]he University of Phoenix, may not have the panache of a University of Florida, but gives more students a superb education for an enormously cheaper price, certainly more effectively and in a lot less time than the University of Florida."
Berko asserted that the University of Florida had 50,000 students with a budget of $4.89 billion while Phoenix, with about the same size budget, has 478,000 students. One reason for the higher cost at Florida: "A total of 900 buildings on a 2,000-plus-acre campus and a staff of 16,000, with a ratio of three students for each staff member," while Phoenix has virtually no campus and a ratio of nine students per staff member.
Berko continued, "And while the University of Florida continues to raise its rates and beg the legislators for more money because its budget runs more red ink than Chairman Mao's Little Red Book; APOL [Phoenix's owner] expects to make an $830 million profit. ... They know how to deliver a good education -without coddling students, without frivolous fluff, without the useless feel-good curriculum, without the lavish student unions, dormitories, sports complexes, private health care, a police force or elaborate administration -buildings that look like Taj Mahals."
Putting aside some of the important controversies about alleged deceptive recruiting practices at Phoenix, will the focused, low-cost education on the Phoenix model bring down the higher-cost model of today's American higher education?
My university friends are not ready to surrender. As one of them said, "What about Nobel Prizes? How many have members of the Phoenix faculty won?"
Another asserted that comparing Phoenix to Florida or any other big research campus was like comparing apples and oranges: "Only if you think the only contribution of the University of Florida is the education of students do the comparisons made in this column make sense. Florida is a Tier 1 university with major professional schools and research units. What cancer research is Phoenix supporting? And what service to the state is it providing?"
My friends will not get any argument from me about the relative contributions of American public universities and Phoenix. It is no contest.
Nor will the Phoenix model ever be as good in providing undergraduates with rich and challenging educational, cultural, and social experiences as our best public universities.
But Phoenix still presents a challenge when it comes to the "apples to apples" comparisons on cost for undergraduates and the relevance of a student's course work to the lightning-fast workplace changes today's students face when they finish their course work.
As our public universities seek continued and increased funding for each student from state legislators, more and more often they are going to hear more and more questions about cost, effectiveness, relevance and ... "frivolous fluff."
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (Friday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 17) guest is Andrew Park, author of "Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad's Struggle To Understand What It Means To Be Religious (Or Not)."
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