Article — From the October 2011 issue
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Article — From the October 2011 issue
Eighty-seven million Americans live within ten miles of one of the University of Phoenix’s nearly 200 campuses. Mine, in Jersey City, comprises the first and fifth floors of an office building beside the PATH train’s Newport Station, right across the river from lower Manhattan. The walkways up from the train platform are lined with advertisements showing the Phoenix logo and the slogan a better future lies ahead.
 For-profits allocate an enormous proportion of their revenue—about one third—to advertising, another thing that distinguishes them from not-for-profit schools.
When I arrived to register for classes early last fall, an admissions counselor named Vaneka Livan met me in the first-floor student center. I’d spoken to Vaneka over the phone a few weeks earlier, telling her that I worked for a nonprofit publishing foundation (which was, strictly speaking, true) and that I was looking to get my college degree (which was not: I’d gotten a B.A. ten years before). She’d urged me to come by the campus to meet with her. Had I called Vaneka a month sooner, she would have been in line to earn a commission for signing me up, but Phoenix had just suspended its incentive program, after the Obama Administration stepped up enforcement of a long-standing ban on linking recruiter compensation to enrollment numbers.
 In 2009 Phoenix paid $78.5 million to settle a federal whistleblower lawsuit that challenged its recruiting practices. In August of this year the Justice Department announced that it was pursuing a similar suit against Education Management Corporation.
Nonetheless, she called me about a half dozen times in the days after our first conversation with reminders of our appointment, directions to campus, and general encouragements, carefully toeing the line between persistence and aggression.
 According to the GAO report, one prospective student was called more than 180 times in one month.
In person, Vaneka greeted me with what seemed to be genuine warmth and enthusiasm. (Her demeanor was shared by nearly all the Phoenix employees I met over the following months, many of whom are themselves graduates of the school and thus among its success stories.) She led me to a small conference room off the student center, where we went through the steps of becoming a Phoenix. Students typically take courses one at time, and each course has five four-hour class sessions, which are held once a week. Most courses are three credits, so a student starting with no college experience and continuing without breaks can earn the 120 credits necessary for a bachelor’s degree in just under four years. (At current rates, those 120 credits will cost about $48,000, a bargain compared with the average private institution, where four years of college will run more than $100,000, but significantly more than public universities’ average of $30,420.) Because each class meets only five times, Vaneka explained, any student who misses two sessions will automatically fail. She stressed that no refunds could be given.
 At such schools, of course, the typical Phoenix student would be eligible for substantial in-house financial aid, of which Phoenix and its ilk offer none
“One day you’ll be leaving work and it’s going to be snowing and freezing cold,” she said to me, her eyes widening sympathetically. “And you’re going to want to just go home instead of getting on that train to class, even though you’ve already missed a class and going home means failing that course.” She let the seriousness of the dilemma set in. “If I call you on that day, what should I say to you to get you on that train?”
There was an odd intimacy to the question.
“I guess you should remind me why my education is important.”
“And why is that? Why is it important to you?”
I gave her what seemed the most sensible response—“Because I want a better job with better pay”—but this answer clearly didn’t satisfy Vaneka.
“Is that going to get you on the train?”
I thought of the posters in the PATH station.
“Because I want a better future,” I said. “Because I owe it to myself.”
Vaneka nodded and wrote the words down carefully.
There seemed to be a new understanding between us as we sat together in front of the computer, completing my application. A brief informational video about responsible borrowing explained the difference between grants and loans and noted that the latter needed to be paid back even if I never earned my degree. Vaneka asked whether I was a military veteran or a member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, which would entitle me to additional government money. I gave the name of my high school and my graduating class, which was the entirety of the application’s academic portion. No transcript was required, and Phoenix never contacted my high school to confirm the information I gave them.
John Sperling founded Phoenix to educate working adults who were completing degrees already started elsewhere; entering students needed to be at least twenty-three years old and have at least two years of work experience. But these standards were gradually relaxed until any student with a high school diploma or equivalency could enter. Today, many students begin having never taken a college-level class.
Phoenix does a particularly poor job serving such students: while its stated 31 percent overall graduation rate is no cause for pride, its first-time-student graduation rate is an embarrassing 12 percent. This has become a real problem since the federal government now mandates, under new rules established by the Obama Education Department, that schools publicize to prospective students the percentage of freshmen who receive degrees within six years. With this in mind, Phoenix recently instituted a first-year “general education” sequence for all students who come to the school with fewer than twenty-four credits. The program consists of eight courses, most given over to what might charitably be called “life skills,” rather than traditional college subjects.
When Vaneka asked whether I had credits to transfer from another school, I told her that I was trying college for the first time, and she explained that I would be enrolling in this first-year sequence.
Near the end of the application process, we arrived at a page labeled “recommendations,” with spaces in which to provide contact information. It occurred to me that getting a reference letter would mean enlisting an accomplice in my deception.
“I can just pick anyone?” I asked Vaneka.
“Anyone you think would be interested in getting a college degree.” They were asking for referrals.
Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor of Harper’s Magazine. His previous article for the magazine, “Supernumerary,” appeared in the March 2011 issue. His first novel will be published next year by Tin House Books.
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