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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.

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Laura Palmer Noone says the University of Phoenix is focused on a different type of student, such as a working single parent.

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.”

Laura Palmer NooneResponding 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?”

Q: How do you know that the University of Phoenix model works and that it is successful?

I’ve seen the results. I’ve seen the students who come out of the system. I started out as a faculty member at the university, and I know what my students learned. I know it was a rigorous and intense experience, and I know that I felt every bit as comfortable on what they were learning in that five-week period as when I was teaching 16-week semesters.

Q: Some questions have been raised about the academic quality, the dropout rate and students defaulting on their loans at the University of Phoenix. How do you respond to that?

I’m no longer an official representative of the university, but the university takes great pride in measuring the academic outcomes of their students. They use nationally known exams, and [students at the University of Phoenix] always come out as being very equivalent.

I think the people who are saying that the university’s academic quality is inferior are doing so out of willful ignorance. They’re not analyzing the data to see that students are in fact learning at the same pace.

The dropout rate is a different sort of question. There’s a lot of research as to why students drop out or default on their loans. If you look at the demographics of the students who are likely to drop out or default, there are very identifiable factors. Institutions like the University of Phoenix have a lot of these students with those multiple risk factors. They have a lot of first-generation college students, students who have lower socioeconomic levels and students who are single parents. All those things make it far more difficult for people to complete [a degree].

The second thing is most everybody looks at the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) rates. They measure only first-time freshmen. So if you took even one course at a community college and then came to the University of Phoenix and finished up, you wouldn’t be counted in the graduation rate, because you aren’t a first-time student. I think that’s true of a lot of students at for-profits.

Q: What are areas for improvement at the University of Phoenix?

The model is constantly being refined, and even to this day they’re refining aspects of it to make sure that it continues to evolve. That’s one of the things that I will give the university a great deal of credit for. They looked at the change in demographics and the change in the needs of their students, and they realized there were things they were going to have to make changes to in order to serve their needs.

Higher education overall has evolved as well, a little faster probably than sometimes it wanted to. I think it was forced to make some changes because of the success of institutions like University of Phoenix.

Q: The University of Phoenix was founded in 1976 and started with five-week courses taught on-site. What have been some of the changes there since then?

Undergraduate classes are still five weeks for a three-credit-hour course; graduate courses are six weeks. But one of the changes is that the University of Phoenix used to be a degree-completion institution only. You had to come in with the first two years of coursework completed. Gradually, the admission requirements were changed so students could come in with fewer credits.

Another change occurred in 1989, when the university launched an online program -- long before online was popular. The whole idea was, “How can we better serve students’ needs?” There were some students who, even though we made this as convenient as possible to go to a campus, sometimes it wasn’t convenient and their schedule wouldn’t allow it.

A few years ago the university also decided that it needed to have more flexibility than to be tied to traditional textbooks. So the university changed to all-electronic resources, which allows you to take the best of this textbook and this textbook and this textbook and put them all together and add simulations to make a much more robust learning environment.

Q: What do you think higher education will look like in 10, 20 years?

I hope that higher ed adapts to the point where it can understand that one size does not fit all. Not everybody has the ability to go to a traditional institution, but everybody should have the opportunity to better themselves through higher education.

Some institutions that have not been particularly selective and don’t have an identified mission or differentiating factor -- I think that there will be some failures of those institutions or a consolidation among their ranks.

I also think you’re going to see a lot more instructional technology.

I don’t think this is going to mean the end to residential education. All these institutions will be around for many years to come, but they serve a narrow section of the population. The needs of the American populace and workforce are much broader than that.

We need to have other vehicles to retrain people and to train people who didn’t go to college right out of high school or went for a semester or two and didn’t finish. There are millions of people in the U.S. who have some college and no degree, and they are ripe candidates for going back to school and becoming part of the solution to reigniting the economic engine.

Though the residential experience will not go away entirely, it will not be the norm. It will be the exception. And to a large extent, it probably already is.