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Don’t Throw Your Money Away on University of Phoenix

Opinion, Business, Money, NakedLaw

The University of Phoenix is the largest for-profit college in the United States, with enrollment in 2010 coming in at over 430,000 students. Most of these students are older than the average undergraduate, with situations that make a traditional university program impractical. Full-time jobs, children, low income, or a spotty academic history make a college such as the University of Phoenix appealing to adults who want to earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, or even a master’s degree.

Students sign up for University of Phoenix seeking to improve their lives in a practical way. They want career training, a higher paying job, or the ability to provide for their family. What they find, too often, is debilitating student loan debt, little career guidance, and almost no support to help with the adjustment to the life of a college student.

If you’re looking for a degree program to fit into a busy schedule, Phoenix probably looks tempting, but this is definitely a case of buyer beware.

Poor Customer Service

Consumer Affairs, a consumer news and advocacy site, lists hundreds of complaints from Phoenix students dating back to 2007. These include misused student aid funds, rude and unhelpful counselors, program and credit misinformation, and countless other errors that made completion of a degree program difficult, if not impossible, for many students. Ripoff Report has nearly 600 similar complaints. Misinformation from admissions counselors is one of the most common, followed by poor instruction quality and misuse of student loan funds. Incoming students are led to believe their credits will transfer to other institutions or qualify for various certifications in their field when that may not be the case.

Questionable Practices

Speaking of misuse of funds, the University of Phoenix has found itself in trouble with the federal government for that very thing. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows the University of Phoenix received more $1 billion in Pell Grant money in the 2009-2010 school years. Several class-action lawsuits have accused Phoenix of illegally accepting money from Pell Grants and other federal student loan programs.

A whistleblower lawsuit, alleging recruiters’ pay was illegally tied to enrollment numbers, was settled for nearly $10 million in 2004. The university settled a similar lawsuit for nearly $80 million in 2009. While the University of Phoenix admitted no wrongdoing in either of those settlements, the accusation has arisen again that recruiters and counselors give potential students misleading information about transferable credits, program accreditation, and financial aid. Recruiters used sales techniques to pressure students into signing up, including hinting at near-full programs and “one seat left” in upcoming classes. Another whistleblower lawsuit was filed in May 2011 in California, charging that the university continues to ignore the ban on tying recruiters’ pay to number of students enrolled.

Quality of Education

These lawsuits allege that the pressure is on for University of Phoenix recruiters to enroll more students, and that they aren’t looking at whether a student is qualified or if the program is a good fit–they just want to boost their numbers. There’s a vicious cycle at work; students enroll in non-traditional programs to finish an abandoned degree, change careers, or improve their earning power; but they may be forced to drop out when they can’t keep up with the program, or they may graduate with a degree in a field where they cannot find work.

What’s even worse is that for a school with such a questionable reputation, its tuition isn’t even cheap (compared to similar programs at community and state colleges), which means students run up student loan debt they may later be unable to pay. After defaulting on student loans, Phoenix alums may end up in worse financial shape than before they went back to school.

The quality of a University of Phoenix education, therefore, is debatable, and open enrollment isn’t the only reason. Many of the faculty members are part-time, and the classes are taught at an accelerated rate. Instructional hours for one course average between 20 and 24, compared to 40 hours for a semester course at a traditional institution.

Additionally, some companies that provide their employees with tuition reimbursement have dropped Phoenix from their programs due to lack of accreditation in many subject areas.

Federal Investigations

Lawmakers in Congress continue to investigate for-profit universities, particularly the University of Phoenix, for issues ranging from high loan default rates to reports of exploitative sales pitches to military veterans. The Obama administration has recently toughened eligibility rules, potentially cutting off government aid for programs with low post-graduation employment and high rates of drop-outs and student loan defaults.

Think about it. Do you want a degree from a university that repeatedly faces accusations of illegally accepted federal student loan funds and questionable recruitment practices? That may knowingly saddle you with excessive student loan debt? A prospective employer in the business world will certainly have heard about Phoenix’s reputation, and it may not be a good thing. Do you want your name associated with University of Phoenix when you’re trying to get a job?