University of Phoenix: Regionally Accredited

University of Phoenix is the United States’ largest private university. It has over 400,000 students split between a robust online learning program and 400 brick and mortar campuses. Through GeekMom, I have been offered the opportunity to take an online class (of my choosing) with UOPX and write about my experience. This post is part of that ongoing series.

Back in the day, when I was applying to colleges as a high school senior, it never occurred to me to look at something as prosaic as accreditation. I knew that I wanted to study creative writing at a smaller school, while the Parental Budget Oversight Office determined that this next phase of my education would be realized from within the parameters of a public-school budget. If memory serves, my final school choice came down to which campus had  the greatest number of  “pretty trees” and bookish guys.

This is not to say that my undergrad alma mater is not a reputable institution…just that at 18 I was lucky enough to have sharper eyes than mine supporting my college search because I certainly did not understand the finer details of the decision I was making. Perched  atop that list of THINGS I DID NOT UNDERSTAND was the fact that colleges and universities essentially fall into one of three categories: unaccredited, regionally accredited, and nationally accredited institutions–and that each of these designations has benefits and disadvantages that the graduate will carry with them for a lifetime:

  • Unaccredited schools (also occasionally referred to as “diploma mills”) offer almost-immediate credentialing through a combination of “life experience” and limited coursework. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to procure tuition assistance for these programs and the resultant degrees are generally under-valued by prospective employers. Additionally, graduates of unaccredited schools may not be able to sit for licensing exams or obtain licenses to practice in their desired field.
  • Nationally accredited schools are the Johnny-Come-Latelies to the post-secondary-accreditation scene. Though still accredited through peer-review, they are seen as less prestigious than regionally accredited schools (bigger does not in this case mean better) and are oftentimes the go-to accreditor of for-profit, vocational, career, and tech programs. Important to remember: nationally-accredited schools will almost always accept credits from regionally accredited schools–however the inverse is rarely true.
  • Regionally accredited schools are the blue-bloods of the accreditation world. Established back in the late 1890’s in response to the industrial revolution’s emerging need for standardization of experience and skills within management’s ranks, the regional accreditation process was the result of schools, colleges, and universities banding together by geographic region to establish universally-accepted criteria for success for both graduates and the institutions they were attending.

Today, it is the regionally accredited schools that have the greatest percentage of “traditional students” (ie: full-time students transitioning immediately from high school to college who are financially dependent upon their parents and are not married with children). For what it’s worth: these “traditional students” actually only constitute about 30% of the country’s overall student population, though they are more likely to be white, middle class/wealthy, and graduates of college-track high school programs than their “non-traditional” counterparts.

As it happens, the college that I attended for my undergraduate degree was regionally accredited, as is the University of Phoenix. However, as University of Phoenix President Dr. William Pepicello indicates on the school’s website: UOPX is “completely devoted to providing access to higher education for nontraditional students-students who may delay enrollment, work full-time, are financially independent, have dependents, or are single parents.”

As my Apollo Group liaison Ryan Rauzon explained to me, UOPX’s emphasis on non-traditional students puts it at a disadvantage when trying to assess qualitative criteria such as student graduation rate, not necessarily because non-traditional students are less likely to graduate, but because they are less likely to be counted in the first place:

Like all accredited colleges and universities, University of Phoenix’s degree completion rate is assessed by the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).  However, IPEDS does a poor job of assessing the nation’s non-traditional students, who comprise the majority of the University’s student body.

  • IPEDS only considers “first-time” college students who complete their entire college program at the same institution.
  • The IPEDS graduation rate does not account for part-time students and transfer students, a segment of the student population that includes many  University of Phoenix students.
  • Moreover, the federal rate does not disaggregate low-income students and remedial students, many of whom experience a longer time-to-degree timelines.

Mr. Rauzon went on to emphasize that 63% of graduate students and 36 % of bachelor’s students complete their degree within six years at University of Phoenix:

Given that our students are “non-traditional,” we think these numbers are strong and we’re proud of every student who puts in the hard work and commitment it takes to earn a degree here. In fact, currently, more than 70 percent of America’s students–including America’s service members–are classified as “nontraditional” by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that a conventional four-year residential college experience will not meet their needs.

These rates are considerably lower than those of my alma mater, where 76% of undergraduate students graduated within six years. However, to the University of Phoenix, the graduation rate of a school peopled predominantly with traditional students is probably beside the point. In a rebuttal to the Reason.com criticism I cited last week, Phoenix’s President William Pepicello said this:

It is nonsensical to examine University of Phoenix through the lens of traditional academia. It is not Yale, nor is it trying to be. University of Phoenix is designed to accommodate busy adults through flexible schedules, a combination of online and conveniently located on-campus courses, and education technology.

According to the Making Opportunity Affordable initiative, the U.S. will need 16 million more Americans to earn degrees by 2025 in order to remain competitive with other leading developed nations, representing a 37 percent increase in productivity per year, as estimated by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Conventional institutions cannot accomplish this on their own. If our nation is going to remain competitive, we must raise more working adults to higher skill levels. University of Phoenix is an important part of the process.

This is the heart of University of Phoenix’s mission, laid bare. The question of whether or not University of Phoenix is the appropriate school for you will likely correlate with how strongly you agree or disagree with Dr. Pepicello in these previous two paragraphs.

Council of Higher Education Accreditation: Types of Accreditation–What’s the Difference?

Next week: University of Phoenix, a military-friendly institution.

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The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.