Open admissions sounds like a good thing. Who doesn’t want to enable people a chance to get a university education? However, this has two major flaws: most students are underprepared academically and, at least in the case of a for-profit institution, there is a distinct cycle of abuse. I will address both of these flaws dealing from my own experience from within an open admission, for-profit university (OAFPU).
The first is fairly straightforward: most students (from my experience) who attend open admissions universities do so because they are unable to gain admission at a ‘normal’ (i.e. selective admissions) university. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. Many community colleges are geared towards taking in underprepared students and building up an underprepared student’s knowledge. Some might require a student to first complete remedial courses before enrolling in other courses. This is a good thing because it prepares students for higher education and it prevents the (further) ‘dumbing down’ of courses. However, when remedial courses are prescribed as ‘optional but recommended’, students only harm their own education. For example, at one of the for-profit universities where I have taught, I have found students who are unable to cite material in any format, double-space a paper (in MS Word), or even properly format a header. That’s in addition to having little to no grasp of grammar and spelling. The result is that these students do poorly in written assignments despite having some intriguing content (the university’s grading rubrics require a dedicated grammar component). What’s sad, though, is that this includes students in their third and fourth years of their education.
Connected to being underprepared, I have noticed that most of these students simply do not have the time or effort to do their assigned work. Students rarely, if ever, read the assignments beforehand. In order to fit their schedules, many classes at the OAFPU meet just once per week for four hours each meeting. Oftentimes, the material for one intro-level course is compressed further so that one meeting might cover what other universities might have made into an entire course by itself (e.g. the Mathematics course covers trigonometry in one week, statistics in another, etc). Add into that mix the fact that most students want to leave an hour early because they have to wake up early (as early as 6 hours from the end of class) for work, family, etc. The result of this mix is that the OAFPU has reduced its educational goals to overly-simplified ideas which do not resemble those of a university. For example, it is an institutional requirement that students upon completion of intro level (100/1000) courses are merely able to identify concepts. For a world religions course, this means being able to correlate a pantheon of deities (with names, of course) to Furballism.
Again, this might sound practical, but the way in which it gets executed is horrendous. The tests, as mandated and planned by the institution (i.e. instructors are not supposed to go rogue and make their own examinations), really focus on how well a student can look up the information in their textbook. To suit this end, the institution has created the tests online in their learning management system (LMS) and indicated that these tests are open book and have a very generous time limit (roughly one hour for every twenty multiple choice answers). If an instructor wants to do these in-class (many of my students ask for this because they claim to not have time outside of class to do the tests outside of class), that’s one to two hours less of lecture material. When I have asked about the open book tests, the response from the administration has been that students really only need to learn how to look up information rather than waste their time learning Hamster Fur Weaving or Gerbil Literature (despite these being required general education courses). Oh, and I should not forget that many students arrive late — despite any penalties attached to it. An instructor might only have 30 minutes of good class time in a week if she were to follow the institutional requirements and wait for students to appear.
At the OAFPU, instructors are expected to be engaging and provide a good educational service to their students. This means that instructors should not lecture for more than fifteen minutes at a time, should incorporate ’30-minute documentaries’ (read that as ‘shows from Discovery and History channels’), lengthy group discussions about students’ opinions on the material, and anything else which might involve students. The rationale behind this is based on the theory that ‘adult learners’ are different from other learners and do not wish to ‘suffer through traditional lectures’ but rather want to add their own insight and discuss the material (the same material which they have not read). The institution uses the process of administrative observation to verify that instructors aren’t ‘boring the students with a lecture’. The wondrous observation occurs randomly and consists of the observer counting to see which students are concerned with the class session, regardless of content (i.e. even if the ‘presentation’ is ‘engaging’ according to their plan, students which can’t be bothered to be engaged count against the instructor).
I now wish to turn to the more important aspect of this post: the cycle of abuse. It is deeply connected to the OAFPU’s ‘commitment’ to educating the underprepared. For students to attend the great OAFPUs, they must, of course, spend money. Tuition at these institutions tend to run much higher than the local public/non-profit open access institutions. Places like the University of Phoenix charge around $10,500* a year for a full-time load over five years in a BA/BS program in business marketing (total is $53k provided that the student does not repeat any classes). In contrast, local open admissions schools cost a third of that price (even their out-of-state/non-resident costs are lower) despite these schools providing the same degree of education with the same schedule flexibility.
Instead, the primary site of financial abuse is through student loans. Like many universities, the OAFPU accepts federal financial aid (loans and grants) as well as other education benefits (e.g. GI Bill). Many students enroll at OAFPU because they will get a refund check from their financial aid. The attendance policy at an OAFPU is very liberal (a student is dropped only if she is marked absent for four consecutive weeks), and the academic integrity policy is a joke (the worst consequence listed is a F for the course in which the student was caught plagiarising — and that’s only if the student is a repeat offender with a major infraction). However, these two policies keep students enrolled so that the university gets profits. This is in addition to the OAFPU’s aggressive policy of getting students to enroll in future terms (regardless of academic standing) and to attend often enough to evade being dropped from their courses. Some of these activities include the administration phoning absent students weekly, the requirement that instructors are also to communicate with the absent student, and paid academic advisers who spend two-thirds of each term phoning students either to enroll or encourage students to communicate with their instructors and attend class.
The worst case of students are those who enroll and attend until they receive their financial aid check. Chances are, these students have no intention of paying back any loans. Rumours have circulated that there is a subset of students who transfer from OAFPU to OAFPU until they are expelled after the many generous probationary terms. However, the generous and liberal nature of university policies which allow these students to persist leads me to suspect that the primary purpose of these policies is so that the university can extract as much profit from these students rather than to attempt to educate them (or remove them if they are not interested in acquiring an education). I believe that is the danger and harm in corporatising education: the goal of profit will always supersede the goal of education often at the expense of education.
To take underprepared and uninterested people as students and cater to their desires (e.g. a degree without any difficult academic work) is a great recipe for profits. However, it is also a horrible recipe for a university; and this is where the corporatised university leads us: the decision to provide education as an institute of higher learning versus the decision to make profits as a ‘student-oriented’ corporation selling an ‘education product’ through ‘engaging lectures’.
*NB: Phoenix seems to have two different prices: a nationwide cost per credit hour for ‘lower-level’ courses and a regional cost per credit hour for ‘upper-level’ courses, so the price may fluctuate a bit. I compared the prices for New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and Denver, CO; I used the least expensive of the three.