Laura Palmer Noone: We treat adult students like customers
The former president of the University of Phoenix describes the for-profit model of higher education, discusses the reaction she gets when promoting it and offers a few lessons she thinks traditional institutions might learn from it.
February 22, 2011 | Yes, Laura Palmer Noone gets mixed reactions when she talks about the for-profit model of higher education.
And no, Noone, president emerita of the University of Phoenix, didn’t earn her undergraduate, MBA and law degrees from for-profit institutions.
But yes, she said, “If I had to do it over again at this point, I don’t think I would be able to do the sit-in-the-200-person-lecture-hall-for-16-or-18-weeks [model]. It would not suit my needs.”
Responding to students’ needs, Noone said, is what drives for-profits like the University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the United States with nearly 438,000 students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“We treat adult students as customers and as consumers of education,” she said, “not in the sense that the customer is always right, but in the sense that they are entitled to timely, accurate information delivered in a courteous manner.”
Noone spent a decade as an attorney in private practice and taught at a couple of traditional colleges and at the University of Phoenix before becoming a director of academic affairs there. After several years as the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, she was named its president in 2000. She retired from the position in 2006 and today is a higher education consultant.
For-profit colleges are currently the subject of both public and government scrutiny, and the University of Phoenix is reshaping itself amidst this growing debate. Multiple for-profits, including the University of Phoenix, are under investigation by state and federal regulators or their accreditors for recruiting tactics and a dependence on federal student aid for revenue.
The U.S. Department of Education also has proposed regulations requiring for-profit colleges and vocational programs to prepare students for “gainful employment,” which several members of U.S. Congress are trying to block. The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the trade association for the for-profit-college industry, has sued the Education Department for regulations that will take effect this summer that gives states more oversight of distance-education programs.
Against the background of this debate, Noone was one of five speakers in a lecture series at Duke University called Re-imagining the Academy. She sp0ke with Faith & Leadership about the for-profit model of higher education and the University of Phoenix. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Describe the difference between the traditional model and the for-profit model of higher education.
It’s hard to say that there’s a for-profit model and a traditional model. Traditional education is not monolithic, nor is for-profit. I can only speak to the University of Phoenix and some of its peer institutions.
The University of Phoenix is very much focused on a different type of student. They’re first-generation college students. They’re older, maybe a single parent, probably working at least part time and maybe full time. There’s a pretty high likelihood they had at least one parent born outside the U.S. All those factors make for a different academic experience and different academic needs.
We focus on the needs of students, No. 1, and making sure they’ve learned what we wanted them to learn, as opposed to [putting] the needs of the institution first. [Traditional] institutions have a very important research component to them. But that’s not to say that one is better than the other. It’s just that they’re different and have different missions.
Q: You’ve previously said that you came to believe early on that there needed to be a different model for higher education. How did you come to believe that?
I was a traditional student in the sense that I did my undergraduate work [at the University of Dubuque] and then went on to get my MBA and my law degree [both at the University of Iowa].
Although I went to very fine law and business schools, neither of those programs particularly suited me to what was going to happen when I was out in the real world. I didn’t really know how to practice law until I actually got into a law firm. I realized there was something missing. We were imparting knowledge but not necessarily imparting the skills that go with the knowledge. I was pleased to find that there was a focus on that at the University of Phoenix.
Q: How does the University of Phoenix do that?
One of the things that businesses tell us is that they need people who can work in teams. Yet higher education has traditionally been an isolated event. You, as a student, go to class and do your own work; you never learn to work in a team. Then all of a sudden we take you out of higher education, put you in the real world and expect you to be able to work in a team. You have never had to function like that.
So why not teach that as part of the curriculum? Why not teach people how to function as a team and how to work to produce a greater product?
Q: What do you think other institutions can learn from the University of Phoenix?
We treat adult students as customers and as consumers of education -- not in the sense that the customer is always right, but in the sense that they are entitled to timely, accurate information delivered in a courteous manner. We don’t need to make them wait in endless lines or walk across campus to go to some building. Their time is valuable to them, and we should treat them as such.
They also have real-world experiences and learning experiences that may have occurred outside the walls of higher education. We should honor those.
Q: When you talk to audiences about the for-profit model, what reaction do you usually get?
It has changed some over time, and it definitely depends on the audience.
And I say this with all the love in my heart, but usually the most hostile reaction is from faculty. I think there’s a fear among them that what I’m talking about will spell an end to life as they know it.
Among administration, there is certainly a mixture of interest -- especially in how for-profits are able to move quickly to respond to changes -- and a little bit of jealousy, because it’s often harder to make sweeping changes in more traditional institutions. Then there’s the aspect of, “How did [the University of Phoenix] get so successful?”