Largest for-profit U.S. university expects to be put on probation by accreditor

The University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit university in the United States and the school with that great “I Am a Phoenix” advertising campaign, is expecting to be put on  probation by its accrediting agency.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports in this article that the Apollo Group Inc., the parent company of the school, reported in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that “a team of reviewers from the Higher Learning Commission had concluded that the university had insufficient autonomy from its corporate parent.”

Mark Brenner, chief of staff for the Apollo Group, wrote in a response that the company would appeal the recommendation but work to fix the problems.

The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools accredits the school, which offers online courses as well as classes on campuses across the country. The school has more than 300,000 students, even after closing 115 traditional campuses last year because of declining enrollment amid growing competition and negative publicity about for-profit schools, according to this New York Times story.

The Chronicle story says that a draft report by the accrediting team of reviewers also  “raised concerns about graduation and retention rates, assessing student learning and the university’s reliance on federal student aid, among other things.”

The university has an overall graduation rate — meaning first-time undergraduates who get a degree in six years — of about 16 percent, though the graduation rate for online programs is a quarter of that.

What does all of this mean for the University of Phoenix and its students?

The Higher Learning Commission’s board of trustees will decide this spring whether to put the school on probation, and if it does, the university will probably have a year to correct the problems. Theoretically, the accreditation could be yanked if the school fails to fix all of the cited problems, though the Chronicle says that is unlikely.

The “I Have a Phoenix” ads spotlight graduates of the school. According to this article in Advertising Age, the school was spending at least $100 million annually on advertising as of 2009.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 26, 2013