Article — From the October 2011 issue

Leveling the Field

What I learned from for-profit education

It was the second week of UNIV 101: University of Phoenix New Student Orientation, and Dr. U. was talking about goals.

“What is goals?” she asked in her melodious Polish accent. There were four of us in UNIV 101, me and Ty and Rob and Junior, and no one seemed quite sure what to make of the question. Thus far there had been little evidence of Socratic irony or indirection holding a prominent place in the pedagogical toolkit here at Phoenix, so if Dr. U. was asking what is goals? then the answer was almost certainly somewhere in the reading. Shuffling through the printouts in front of me, I saw it written at the top of a page: “Simply stated, goals are outcomes an individual wants to achieve in a stated period of time.” By then, Ty’s hand was already up.

“Goals,” he told Dr. U., “are when you have something you want to accomplish in the future.”

Before coming to Phoenix, Ty took classes at Hudson Community, just on the other side of Interstate 78 from our classroom in Jersey City, but he didn’t like the atmosphere much, he had told us all the week before, in part because people weren’t thinking enough about what they wanted to accomplish in the future. He spoke with a Phoenix recruiter, and now he was trying the place out.

“And what kind of goals should we have?” Dr. U. asked hopefully.

Dr. U.’s full name is Ewa Usowicz, but everyone called her Dr. U. She earned her doctorate in management from Phoenix after growing up in Communist Poland. Behind the Iron Curtain, Dr. U. had experienced an authoritarian style of education, and she preferred Phoenix’s student-centered approach.

Phoenix doesn’t have professors; Dr. U. is a “facilitator.” She is tall and pretty and wears her blond hair in a short and severe cut that makes one suspect she wouldn’t make such a bad authoritarian herself, though she does her best to exude the encouraging openness that is apparently required of all facilitators.

“Smart,” Dr. U. said when no one answered her question. “We want to have smart goals.” Which seemed fair enough. “And what is smart?

This turned out to be another seemingly abstract question whose answer was right there in the reading: SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. It was unclear what beyond the mnemonic demands of the acronym distinguished “attainable” from “realistic,” so we more or less skipped the latter as we ran through the list. From there, our taxonomy continued to long-term versus short-term goals, personal versus professional. Dr. U. asked whether anyone wished to share a goal.

“My goal,” Rob said, “is to pass this orientation so I can start taking classes for real.”

Rob, too, studied briefly at Hudson, before Ty referred him to the Phoenix recruiter.

“And is that a short-term goal or a long-term goal?” Dr. U. asked.

Rob considered this.

“If I don’t pass it’s gonna be a short-term goal.”

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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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