Career-relevant higher education for working adults

This year, University of Phoenix will celebrate forty years. Our founder Dr. John Sperling came to Phoenix in 1976, seeing a national need for an institution providing career-relevant higher education for working adults. Our university was among the first in the nation to address that need, as Sperling then wrote: “Little thought has been given to designing a system which will advance the education of those who are already working and who do not have the time, money, or inclination to drop their jobs and attend school.” 

Of course, four decades later, many other institutions are now appropriately focused on working adults and so-called “nontraditional students,” who today comprise the majority of Americans pursuing a higher education. But Sperling’s call to action holds: we are still, as a nation and an institution, called on to help diverse, working adults who are raising families while they finish their degrees, balance their time, cost of college and personal realities. We know that the success or failure of these students in gaining a college degree will have a meaningful impact on their quality of life, and as large an impact on our nation’s economy. Our collective mission today is as important as it was then, possibly even more so.

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After spending over a decade and a half at University of Michigan, I came to lead University of Phoenix in 2014. During that transition, many colleagues shared how University of Phoenix helped them, an adult family member or a friend change their lives through a degree they might not have otherwise attained. 

At Michigan commencements, the typical graduate was a 21- or 22-year-old. I commonly saw graduates who had written “Thanks Mom and Dad” or something similar on their caps. I noticed different signs at my first University of Phoenix graduation and the many I have attended since. Here, the kids were watching the ceremony, and carrying signs that said: “Congratulations, Dad!” or “We’re proud of you, Mom.”

For me, those commencements brought into focus that working adult students’ needs are different. 76 percent of our students work while going to school, 67 percent have dependents at home and 60 percent are first generation college students. Our average age student is 34 years old. Further proof that our students don’t fit the (now outdated) stereotype of a “college kid.”

Our students trust that our programs are career-relevant. Our faculty bring to the classroom professional expertise in the fields they teach. We align our curricula and programs with employers’ needs, industry standards and defined competency models. Where those industry competency models do not exist, we help define them. For example, our College of Security and Criminal Justice partnered with ASIS International; formerly the American Society for Industrial Security, a leading organization dedicated to developing educational programs and materials, conducting advocacy and administering certification programs in security management. Together, we developed the Enterprise Security Competency Model for a rapidly changing security workforce. The model was developed through the expertise of more than 500 enterprise and cybersecurity leaders and published by the U.S. Department of Labor. It is now being used by employers like IBM and Time Warner Cable. Over 40 degree programs and 60 certificate programs at the University are directly aligned with industry competencies.

Our focus on career-relevant higher education also includes world-class assessment to answer the critical question of what students are actually learning in the classroom—not only specific hard skills tied to industry competencies—but the soft skills so crucial in today’s world: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, comprehension and teamwork. At University of Phoenix, we are investing in world class assessment tools and processes to ensure students are achieving the necessary learning goals–and we will be reporting on progress made by our students in our Academic Annual Report. Not only do our students graduate with the requisite knowledge and skills but they also possess the grit, tenacity, character and life experience any employer should value (not to mention diversity and military experience).  

Last year, The White House and U.S. Department of Education released new data showing outcomes at colleges and universities nationwide. I was pleased to see that the White House College Scorecard demonstrates the value of our degrees. According to the Scorecard data, our tuition and fees were below the national average for private universities with more than 15,000 students, and the median earnings of our students, measured ten years after they entered University of Phoenix, were above the national average for public and private universities with more than 15,000 students. Additionally: our three-year cohort default rate, as calculated by the Education Department, fell to around 13.5 percent. That’s almost half what it was two years ago, and just slightly above the national average of 11.8 percent. Of course we always strive to improve these rates.

Data of this kind—combined with our assessment data on learning goals that we know are in-demand by employers today—drive our investments to ensure we become a more trusted, more focused, less complex institution committed to even better outcomes for our incredibly determined, hard-working and deserving students.

Slottow is the seventh president of University of Phoenix. president@phoenix.edu

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