Asses in Classes

A Gray Lady article about UoP reveals this criticism: “According to federal statistics and government audits, the university relies more on part-time instructors than all but a few other postsecondary institutions, and its accelerated academic schedule races students through course work in about half the time of traditional universities.” This should come as a surprise to exactly no one. That is the University of Phoenix’s explicitly-stated faculty model. I am one of those part-time instructors, but I have little doubt that I am well-qualified to teach a subject in which I hold an advanced degree and practice professionally every day.

The Times further reports that “The university says that its graduation rate, using the federal standard, is 16 percent, which is among the nation’s lowest, according to Department of Education data. But the university has dozens of campuses, and at many, the rate is even lower.” In response, Phoenix’s president writes “The federal standard used to calculate graduation rates is biased, requiring universities to report only on the students with no prior college experience. Such a standard excludes 93 percent of our student population.” Certainly, anyone can lie with statistics, and it’s usually a good idea to look at numbers like this from multiple angles.

The more valid complaint from the Times is my constant gripe: “instructional shortcuts, unqualified professors and recruiting abuses.” I get too many students who are intellectually unprepared for collegiate-level work and who claim to have had instructors before me who let them get away with a lot of shoddy work. Half of them couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag if I gave them scissors, and they resent being asked to produce high-quality writing in term papers.

It got so bad after my last class that I simply abandonded having papers at all; now all of my student evaluation is based on objective testing. I fret that I am guilty of committing what the Times called an “instructional shortcut” but the fact of the matter is that the school doesn’t care. I use their selected textbook’s bank of test questions and select the more difficult among the questions available. If this does not meet their criteria for rigor, they can tell me to change my instruction plan. But I’ve been audited by the administration twice in nearly three years of
teaching, so there does not seem to be any interest in committing resources to keeping academic standards high.

Nor are there incentives for me to do so; and substantial disincentives, in the form of extra hours of work for the same low pay if I take the time to educate my students about the importance of good writing and suggest ways that they can improve. If some of my fellow instructors do not provide high levels of service, this is not a surprise to me; there is no good reason for them to do so if they are not internally motivated to do a good job teaching anyway. From discussions on the online faculty lounge, I’m impressed that there are so many instructors who do care at all. Sure, I like the extra money I get when UoP pays me, but it’s not enough for me to keep on doing this. I do it because it’s supposed to be enjoyable, too. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

A significant reason that traditional four-year universities produce high graduation rates and (theoretically) higher-quality graduates is that a four-year university exercises competitive selection from amongst its applicant pool, and traditionally takes a young student with little non-academic experience. University of Phoenix exercises a single selection criteria, ability to pay, and then skews that criteria by offering financial aid to increase the number of people who can become students. The typical student is a working adult in mid-career, who needs a degree to advance. As a result, the amount of time and mental focus such a student can devote to the class, as well as the amount of intellectual resources available to devote in the first place, are both less than what you would find among undergraduate students at UCLA or Georgetown. That’s the reality of it, whether the Times or UoP’s president is offering the more accurate take on the statistics.

But, and here’s the part where I sound tough and unsympathetic, not everyone should get a college degree. A college degree is supposed to represent a higher level of knowledge, education, and intellectual ability. It is supposed to be above average, and by definition, not everyone is above average. Not everyone is going to have the ability to complete a program or get all “A’s.” The marketing department of UoP is, in my opinion, guilty of overpromising academic success and the rewards that go along with it to students who have not demonstrated the potential to achieve that success. The result is that not all of my students get A’s and many leave my classes mad at me, and at the school, as a result of it.

That’s not to say that there is no hope for a working adult who needs to complete their degree to advance in their career. UoP can be a rigorous learning environment and its degree can be a meaningful reflection of knowledge and increased intellectual skills. It can also be a reflection of good attendance. It’s really up to the student as to which it will be. I can’t fault UoP for not providing a real educational opportunity for its students. The accelerated class format is not for everyone, but it can and will work for some students (the self-motivated ones who would find a way to make most formats work, mainly).

I can fault UoP for not selecting students who will take advantage of the opportunity provided. Simply put, UoP needs to start exercising a little bit of selectivity in its student selection process. There is more to education than putting asses in classes.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.