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THE IDLE AMERICAN Teamless but not Nameless…
Wednesday, January 28, 2009 • Posted January 28, 2009

They wore ragged coats, this pair of college administrators, poring over the ledger as the final flickering minutes of the fiscal year faded away. Weary of cost-cutting measures, they’d turned off the heat to save money. The cold north wind whistled through crack-plagued walls.

Feverishly, the business officer made final entries before shouting the good news to the little school’s president. “It’s razor-thin, but we’ve finished ‘in the black’,” he bragged.

“Wonderful,” the CEO responded. “Our trustees love black ink.” Pausing, the numbers guy dampened the depression-era moment. “Boss, we’re out of ink,” he lamented. “If we buy a bottle, the bottom line changes color, and it’ll have to be red ink.”…

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Stories like this come to mind as today’s economic woes hog the headlines, as well as radio and TV news.

Minuses and negatives dominate, but seemingly spared from it all is North America’s “largest private higher education institution”—The University of Phoenix.

While much is backward, inward and downward throughout the world in general, not so with The University of Phoenix—UPX as it is now known. This 33-year-old institution spreads onward, outward and upward, growing from an opening enrollment of eight students to some 350,000 today….

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UPX claims to be cutting edge, offering baccalaureate through doctoral degrees on 204 campuses in 40 states—and beyond. The institution’s motto is “thinking ahead.”

Critics of UPX suggest that “bone-head thinking” may be more appropriate.

Some educators and numerous entities would like to put the brakes on the school that has become the “800-pound gorilla” of higher education….

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It should be noted that UPX is a “for profit” institution. It is owned and operated by the Apollo Group, Inc., and is listed on NASDAQ. Buy some stock if you’d like.

With an ever-growing enrollment and average tuition of $12,000, solvency seems assured.

Operating with 95% part-time faculty, UPX brain trusts found $154.5 million to secure naming rights for the new stadium in Glendale, AZ. The rights span 20 years. One wag said this might be the “cheap way out,” achieving an athletic connection without cost of fielding teams or hiring high-powered coaches…

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On traditional campuses, students would march on the administration building if funds were spent in this manner. Trouble is, most UPX students don’t know where the administration building is, or if the institution even has one!

Never mind that this staggering figure helped to make possible North America’s only stadium with both a retractable roof and the first fully retractable field—almost 19 million pounds worth. The field is “rolled out” to absorb the Arizona sunshine 95% of the time.

Never mind, also, that UPX and other accredited schools face an ongoing battle with unscrupulous and unaccredited “colleges” that flood the Internet with illegitimate offers. They come in all shapes and sizes. For these “fly-by-nighters,” all it takes is money, no questions asked, and return mail will bring diplomas suitable for framing….

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Who knows if UPX can pass the test of time? It perhaps can.

Being the largest recipient of student financial aid funds from the government, however, may be nettlesome, and ongoing accreditation is never guaranteed. Last year, UPX received more than $2.8 billion in federal financial aid—more than any other educational institution in the nation.

Feds are posing ongoing questions, many concerning whether the school properly balances value to students and profits to shareholders….

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UPX’s deep pockets may be challenged if things should turn south.

Some of their “out-goes” are substantial, particularly in fines and settlements. In 2004, the university paid a settlement of $9.8 million to the US Department of Education for alleged violations of provisions prohibiting distribution of financial incentives to admission representatives.

There are numerous other pending federal issues, including a lawsuit set for trial in September. At issue are hundreds of millions of dollars awarded in federal financial aid…

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“Thinking ahead” may be a questionable motto for an institution that trumpets new opportunities for older students who are holding down fulltime jobs.

It does so with much on-line instruction. By US Department of Education standards, the UPX graduation rate of 16% ranks well under the national average of 55%.

UPX responses hang much on the school’s commitment to non-traditional students. I dunno. But I do know that the $12,000 average tuition seems steep, and that $154.5 million expended to name a stadium is ludicrous, inappropriate and ill-advised by any measure. If I were a UPX student, I’d find some others to help me march. Then, we’d see if there’s an administration building to be found.

And if it turns out that UPX flounders, university stockholders may wind up buying red ink—by the barrel….

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Dr. Newbury is a speaker and author in the Metroplex. He welcomes inquiries and comments. Email: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web Site: www.speakerdoc.com.

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