Twofish's Blog

July 19, 2006

More comments about the University of Phoenix

Filed under: academia, university of phoenix — twofish @ 9:54 pm

I noticed that a lot of hits have been about the University of Phoenix, and let me point out one of the things that I’m worried about. You can think of degrees as something like paper money. They are pieces of paper that represent claims on value.

This is what I’m worried about. Suppose a university like UoP generates a diploma. What is the economic value of the diploma. If the main value of the diploma is as a representation of skills, the economy in general increases. If the main value of the diploma is to be a selection mechanism, then we have a problem.

Suppose you have fifty jobs and ten MBA’s. Lots of people see this and get MBA’s. So now you have 100 people with MBA’s. If you still only have fifty jobs, then the MBA is worthless since they will now use some other mechanism to select those people. The question that needs to be seen from a social science perspective is what is the effects of generating a lot of new MBA’s, because I’m worried that the outcome will be the same as the current massive glut of physics Ph.D.’s.

One thing that I would strongly advise people who are getting MBA’s is to study history and philosophy. History and philosophy are perfectly useless for getting that promotion right after you get your MBA. But ten to fifteen years down the line, when the world changes, and you are trying to figure out what to do, history and philosophy suddenly become very useful.

The other thing I would suggest is to customize your degree. UoP may produce thousands of MBA’s, but if you have an MBA, and some skills (either formal or informal) in something weird like candy making or Fiat auto repair.

Some problems with UoP

1) there is no mechanism to learn calculus. Once you learn calculus, this is the gateway to a lot of math, science, and engineering.

2) there is nothing that I’ve seen that resembles a “student union” or a “teacher union.” It would be nice if UoP had some organized mechanism by which students and teachers could express their concerns to the administration in some sort of organized fashion.

(By the way, since I’m throwing firebombs here, if anyone here is working for the AFL-CIO, UoP and similar schools seem to me to be ideal targets for labor unionization, since someone is making a lot of money, but it ain’t the adjunct faculty. It’s also difficult to move these jobs offshore, and it seems to me an ideal way of adapting the labor movement to the new economy.

The other thing is that a lot of the people in UoP are professionals.  If you can show them how a labor union is good for them and make them comfortable with the idea of a union, then this is the ticket to unionization in other professional fields.)

3) I have real problems with UoP marketing that makes it seem like a degree is a magic ticket to success. A degree is useful, but it is only part of your education. You need to go to the library, and be involved in your community, be informed in public affairs. If the economy falls apart, then a degree is not going to help you at all.



  1. Agreed. On most points. 🙂

    By in large, speaking from my own experience as a University of Phoenix faculty member, the classroom experience is far different from the image the current marketing would have you believe. We might be a new wave of faculty, but we’re trying to do something different: to establish a performance space in the classroom, a space to show off, to prove students know what they say — and we think — they know.

    This, because the assertion that a degree is simply a piece of paper is shallow. Not wrong, simply incomplete. With the increasing demand for education in general, the piece of paper is in fact a leveling mechanism. And so be it: if I can teach my students how to first use the piece of paper to get in the door, and second to then show mastery through a portfolio of sound work product, I can sleep at night. In hiring, that’s what is becoming the salient point anymore: your degree says what you *say* you can do — the recruitment process allows you to *prove* it.

    And nice firebomb on the unionization point, indeed. Ahem… no comment. 🙂

    Pete Wright
    University of Phoenix

    Comment by Pete Wright — July 21, 2006 @ 12:01 am

  2. But is the piece of paper a leveling mechanism? Suppose you have two students that know the same things. One gets stamp Harvard. Another gets stamped “Podunk University” but lets assume hypothetically that students learn the same thing. You’ve just created a profoundly uneven mechanism. (I hasten to add that this is a hypothetical. I think all things considered, UoP is leveling the playing field.)

    The other problem is that what is good for the employer is not necessarily good for the student, and students need to be aware of that. The employer wants a student with some narrow skills. If the work environment changes, those skills become obsolete, and the employer lays off the student, the employer doesn’t care, he can get a new round of employees. But the student still has to live a life.

    And what of the students life outside work? It’s interesting that the main interest in my blog has been my opinions on UoP, whereas my main interest is to talk about some tremendous personal pain that I’ve been going through. This personal pain has some relevance to my work because unless I work through it, I can’t take certain jobs. I’ve found that learning history and philosophy has helped a lot to figure out what I should do, but those items are not considered as important, because they are not directly work related. Education just becomes training for the next job, rather than attempting something to be useful to people both in and off the job.

    One thing that I do believe is that the final decision should be the students. If a student just wants training for a job, just give him training for a job. The difficulty is that student priorities are influenced by the advice that they get, which are influenced by who pays the bills, which may be cause things to tilt too much toward the interests of the employer and not to the student.

    One final thing. One inner conflict that I had was that I was impressed by the drive and energy of the students, but sometimes I felt that their view of the workplace was a bit naive. They had this expectation that they would get their degree and this would translate into a big raise and promotion, whereas my experience with the corporate world has been that things are considerably more brutal than what the students expect. Once you are boxed in a big corporation, it is very difficult to move out of the box. There is a “tremendous” amount of “old boy net” thinking in most corporations and HR departments.

    At the same time, I didn’t want to spoil their dreams. I might be wrong about their situation and may have had just a bad experience where I worked. At the same time, I was worried that may be the students were being overly influenced by the dream that UoP was trying to sell them.

    I should point out that I like UoP because it is “open architecture” in that there is no cap as far as the number of students it teaches, and that the financial incentives for UoP are to educate more people rather than fewer. One reason I’ve got involved in UoP is that I hate closed power structures in academia and society, and I would like to see the day in which a UoP diploma is considered preferable to one from Harvard and Yale. Harvard, MIT and Yale get a lot of their power not from the quality of education, but from the social networks and webs of power that center at the university. I’m worried that education increasingly is being used to *create* class distinctions rather than lessen them.

    For UoP to challenge that, this means creating counter-networks which means creating institutions like teacher unions or student unions, but that may run counter to the interests of the UoP administration.

    Since I’m an MIT alumni, something that I’d like to see, although I have no way of figuring out how to do this is some sort of collaboration between UoP and MIT.

    Comment by twofish — July 21, 2006 @ 12:43 am

  3. One more thing. The reason I originally got interested in UoP was that I was hoping to someday teach astrophysics, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics there. If UoP ever has any interest in creating a physics department, I’m going back, but I stopped teaching once I figured out that UoP wasn’t particularly interested in this.

    There are a huge number of unemployed Ph.D. physicists out there, and if UoP ever finds it in its business interests to employ them (teaching calculus even business calculus is a first step), this could be big.

    I’m just worried that UoP is issuing degrees which have often been used for “ticket stamping” (MBA and Education) rather than degrees with skills which are less easily used for this (biology or aerospace engineering).

    Comment by twofish — July 21, 2006 @ 12:53 am

  4. You’ve hit on a point that I’ve thought on often: the concept that the needs of the student are quite different than the needs of the corporations into which they’re trying to gain entry. It’s a funny thing — our whole model heretofore has been designed around meeting the needs of business by tailoring education as such. Clearly, it’s worked on some level. Corporate life welcomes what we do, the cookie-cutter approach provides graduates who are sound critical thinkers and manage data well, their communication skills are top notch, and we prize ourselves on this idea that we’re teaching students *how* to learn.

    What I think you’re getting at, and what I find so comeplling, is that that model might just not be a good fit anymore. In fact, our model should be instilling the spirit of entrepreneurialism to a much greater extent rather than the art of fitting in to an existing system. And, to be clear, I haven’t found a single *excellent* program that addresses entrepreneurialism in traditional ed or non-traditional. We, as institutions, aren’t good at it yet.

    But, a strike at that task does come in addressing the networking function. And I’d add to your points: Why shouldn’t the UOP alumni organization be as robust as any of those in traditional education? We have the numbers *and* the geographic spread to make a compelling network quite approachable. I’m very interested in the concept of open source education, curriculum design, networking virtually and phsically — and I’m confident we can make it work.

    Confidence that, I hope, isn’t mistaken for hot air as this is the number one project I’m working on at University of Phoenix right now. 🙂

    As for the Physics program, I’ll do you one better. I just read your post lobbing firebombs at UOP and Harvard — yes, the MIT colors show strong — and I found it compelling. I’ll be travelling back to Phoenix in a week and will take this issue on with our acting president of Axia College. I don’t know the state of science curriculum at the undergraduate level, but I can guarantee that there are some smart people thinking about it, and thinking about ways to address that changing student demographic.

    Comment by Pete Wright — July 21, 2006 @ 11:58 pm

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