Ivory Towers in the Marketplace

Ivory Towers in the Marketplace

In 1997, Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, concluded a five-year national study of undergraduate attitudes about higher education. The study was like a cold shower, one made all the more jarring by the fact that Levine published his findings in the pages of Daedalus, the cerebral quarterly of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. College “is not as central to the lives of many of today’s undergraduates as it was to previous generations,” Levine wrote. “It is becoming just one of many activities in which they engage in every day. For many, college is not even the most important of these activities. Work and family often overshadow it.” Students prefer relationships with schools similar to those “they already enjoyed with their bank, their gas company, their supermarket,” Levine explained. They “want their colleges nearby and open during the hours most useful to them, preferably, around the clock. They want easy, accessible parking, no lines, and a polite, helpful, and efficient staff. For the most part, they are willing to comparison shop, placing a premium on time and money. They do not want to pay for activities and programs they do not use or can get elsewhere.”

For nearly thirty years, the University of Phoenix has been providing just such a stripped-down, convenient version of college. Owned by the publicly traded Apollo Group, Phoenix is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. With around ninety campuses in nineteen states, it currently enrolls more than seventy thousand students. It has earned millions of dollars, and it happily regards students as “customers” shopping for vocational training and professional credentials. Phoenix is choosy about those customers: one must be at least twenty-three years old and employed to enroll. Phoenix is just as choosy about when and where it offers classes: in the evenings and on weekends, and in classrooms located in malls and industrial parks with rows of accessible parking. Like many for-profit and nonprofit schools, Phoenix is increasingly using the Web to deliver parts of its curriculum to students.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Phoenix caught the attention of the press. Some stories were nothing more than a big wet kiss from hacks whose love affair with the New Economy had led them to Phoenix’s doorstep. Other stories were more circumspect, but they read like the musings of a feverish Rip Van Winkle who had awakened to find his hallowed marketplace of ideas turned into, well, a marketplace. Critics assailed Phoenix for sacrificing the classics to commerce, for transforming the vale of soul-making into a vocational forcing-house.

Despite their passion, these critics were wrong to pin the downsizing of the humanities on the rise of proprietary schools like Phoenix. They failed to notice a broad trend in higher education, one documented by James Engell and Ant...