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Agility, Innovation Lead University of Phoenix’s Response to America’s Changing Needs

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

These are the most uncertain times, socially and economically, that the country has seen in more than half a century. Change is occurring in nearly every sector of industry, with thousands of workers displaced and thousands more questioning the stability of their career paths. For higher education, it is a time when the unemployed and underemployed are reaching out for knowledge to pull them from their plight and open the way to new opportunities. 

Today’s needs require meaningful responses from institutions that are both flexible and innovative. Over the past three decades, the University of Phoenix has worked to build such an institution, with the agility to directly address the shifting economic and academic challenges that working adults face. 

Explains university president Bill Pepicello, “Education is counter-cyclical, because when the economy is bad, people need to come back to school to retool, to become more competitive.” However, the economic downturn has raised new obstacles for institutions trying to provide access for the people who need it most. State funding is plummeting. Services are being cut and faculty furloughed. Classes supporting working adults are being eliminated, all at a time when their needs for new skills are greater than ever. 

Filling holes in the educational landscape has been at the heart of the mission of University of Phoenix since John Sperling, a Cambridge- trained economist and socially-aware educator, founded it in 1975. Sperling had become disquieted by accounts of police officers and firefighters who, retiring after risking their lives for twenty years, would be relegated to lower-paying jobs because they lacked higher education. He devised a program that gave frontline workers an off-duty chance at a life-changing degree. Buoyed by success and accreditation in 1978, the university soon expanded to serve adults traveling along a variety of career paths. “There was a huge unmet need for people to keep their jobs and go to school,” says university provost Adam Honea—a need for evening classes, flexible scheduling, and continuous enrollment, all in an environment befitting working adults. 

Enlarging the Opportunities for Higher Education 

The university’s growth over the last thirty years has been fueled by constant innovation, an ongoing effort to improve the learning experience, ranging from one of the earliest efforts at online student-faculty interaction via a Wide Area Network in the 1980s, through leading-edge learning that tapped the potential of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, to the university’s pioneering work in the digitization of all course materials and resource materials in the early 2000s. 

Through research and evaluation, a unique learning model emerged, one based on the high standards of a progressive education and even higher expectations of student engagement. Today, that model encompasses more than 380,000 learners online and on campus, who are pursuing more than 100 degree programs over the Internet and at more than 100 campuses and learning centers. 

Pepicello notes that, despite the large number of students, classes remain small and conducive to learning, with ten or so in an online class, fifteen to twenty on campus. Whether in nursing, education, IT or business management, coursework emphasizes not only the acquisition of knowledge but its application, either through working in the course’s prescribed learning teams or out in the real world. Continuous communication between faculty and students, and among the members of the small study and discussion groups, heighten the experience on both an intellectual and interpersonal level. The goal, explains Honea, is to help students not only academically, but to develop those values and attitudes—responsibility, dedication to the team, decision-making in a group setting—that are so important to success in the working world. “One of the best ways to learn,” says Honea, “is by giving the cognitive side of the person information, while appealing to the affective side by a social connection.”

Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and commitment to learning became the underpinnings of the university experience. “Those are the qualities that move people,” Honea says. “Like it or not, the number one thing that advances people is whether they can work with others.” Still, some students return to school ill- prepared in even the most basic life skills. As Pepicello explains, many students, often the first in their families to attend a university, have seen their parents succeed without college, but suddenly in their mid-twenties and facing a roiling economy, they realize how critical a higher degree is to building a stable career. But a desire to learn does not by itself assure success. Students needed education not only in academic subjects but also in survival skills, so the university created a curriculum that guided students in reorienting their lives. “When students come in, we talk to them about putting together a life plan,” says Pepicello, “not just covering school but everything from finances to fitness, educating the whole person as opposed to focusing solely on classroom skills.”

Leading the learning is a faculty drawn from both business and academe, nearly 1,500 core faculty and more than 20,000 associate faculty, with an average of sixteen years of experience in their field. All are appropriately degreed, yet, regardless of their academic background, they go through a rigorous process of interviewing, training, mentoring, and monitoring before being certified. “On the student side you get a practitioner who brings relevance as well as academic credentials,” says Honea. “You’ll find accounting classes taught by the CPAs of companies, not teaching assistants. For our students it’s the ideal person, because they too are often walking through the door with some experience.”

Monitoring Relevancy, Measuring Results

The university’s unwavering focus on giving working adults the opportunity to learn has contributed greatly to its achievements as an institution. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people,” says Pepicello. “The social agenda is still to help rebuild the middle class of America by enlarging those opportunities that make it accessible.” And the pursuit of that agenda meshes seamlessly with the university’s business model as a for-profit organization. In particular, self-sustaining budgets and a centrally managed structure create powerful means of driving change and ensuring quality throughout the enterprise. “We have the ability to reinvest resources very quickly,” notes Pepicello. “If in the IT curriculum we see a need to integrate new hardware or software, we can do it rapidly and with the same results at every location.” The University believes that these efficiencies enable its profits and, as a large organization, they work hard to stay efficient.

The university’s collaborative entrepreneurial culture embraces the better idea wherever and however it emerges, from the top down or the bottom up. Executives, administrators, college deans, faculty, content experts and instructional designers work in concert, and are capable of developing and implementing an entire program within six months—all with the assurance that, “whether online or on campus, the course is the same, has the same objectives and the same outcomes,” says Pepicello.

Rather than focusing purely on the theoretical, the university blends theory and practice to respond to the real needs of real people. The question asked in evaluating every possible change is simple: Is it in the best interest of the students? “We bear in mind that every academic decision we make is also a business decision, and every business decision we make is also an academic decision,” says Pepicello. “So we don’t have the luxury of putting together a program that no one will take, that won’t serve anybody, like building a car no one would buy.”

The university vigilantly monitors its hundreds of courses to make certain that each continues to deliver the right information and helps fulfill the promise of personal advancement. Those measurements and assessments drive the constant tuning of classes, curricula, and faculty. “It’s a balance of relevancy and results,” notes Brian Lindquist, dean of the university’s College of Graduate Business and Management, “that’s critically important to students caught in the currents of change. The university is constantly reexamining what we should be doing to prepare people,” says Lindquist, “making sure that we’re giving them the right set of skills for what’s on the other side of this economic transformation we’re going through.”

No one knows what the future holds, but the university envisions that its dual emphasis on pertinent knowledge and real-life skills will equip students to contend with whatever tomorrow presents. “We’re uniquely positioned to be agile enough to continuously rethink what we’re providing our students, their skills, their ability to learn, so they’ll be ready to make the right move,” says Lindquist. “It’s been a university commitment for thirty years, a dedication to delivering an education that leads students to better prospects whether in times of prosperity or paucity.” And through it all, Lindquist says, “we prepare our students by looking for the opportunities, not lamenting the losses.”