HBCUs Aren’t Sold on Course Partnerships With U. of Phoenix (CHE)

Nearly a year after the Thurgood Marshall College Fund announced an alliance to encourage historically black colleges to make use of the online courses and distance-education expertise of the University of Phoenix, few of the 100-plus eligible institutions seem to be taking the for-profit provider up on its offer.

To date, only Florida A&M University and Paul Quinn College appear close to creating any sort of partnership with Phoenix, and the Florida A&M project wouldn’t involve students directly. Two other HBCUs, Morgan State and Grambling State Universities, are considering more-limited deals.

A Phoenix spokesman says the university is also in discussions with Dillard, Elizabeth City State, and Hampton Universities. They are conducting a “preliminary review of our offering,” he says.

“It’s been slow coming,” says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., chief executive of the fund, who has been working to develop the alliance. “I underestimated the inertia in this space,” but it’s understandable, he says: “This is change.”

As he and Phoenix officials conceived the alliance, Mr. Taylor says, the university would make its course platform available to the HBCUs, which could offer the Phoenix courses to students or just use the platform while providing their own course content and instruction. In effect, Phoenix would be their technology partner behind the scenes. (At one point Mr. Taylor proposed having the courses labeled “powered by the University of Phoenix,” but “our schools would have no part of that,” he says.)

HBCUs would pay Phoenix $395 for each student who completed a course using its platform.

When the alliance was announced, some observers questioned both Phoenix’s motives and the wisdom of HBCUs’ working with a provider whose academic reputation was under fire. Mr. Taylor says those concerns don’t worry him. Phoenix’s motivation “could be purely political,” he says, “but it doesn’t matter to me.”

Developing Expertise

Even as its enrollment has slumped, Phoenix is known for recruiting a high proportion of minority students, while many ​​HBCUs struggle to attract students.

Most of the colleges don’t have extensive online offerings, and Mr. Taylor says he hoped the opportunity for them to develop expertise in distance education through the alliance would outweigh considerations such as the potential that the partnership might cannibalize HBCU enrollments. “Lose the student altogether or partner” is the choice many HBCUs face, he says. “MIT hasn’t called us and offered their online program.”

Florida A&M considered a relationship along the lines of the one Mr. Taylor had devised, but Timothy E. Moore, vice president for research, says both the president and the provost “expressed some reservations.” So he “reformulated it.”

Next month, says Mr. Moore, the university plans to announce a “research project” using Phoenix’s technology in online and hybrid teaching in the middle- and senior-high-school classes that Florida A&M runs on its campus, in Tallahassee.

When the alliance was announced, officials said the partnership opportunities would also be open to private HBCUs, like Paul Quinn. The college, in Dallas, plans to allow its students to take Phoenix courses beginning in January, to make up credits and remain on track to graduate. Paul Quinn is converting to a “work college” model, in which students’ labor both educates them and keeps the campus going.

The college’s president, Michael J. Sorrell, says the flexibility of the Phoenix academic calendar — it starts new sections of its classes nearly every week — could be an attractive option for students balancing work duties and study. He expects that Phoenix personnel will train his faculty members in distance-education techniques. Paul Quinn has just one online program, in business, and “this is another way to build capacity,” he says.

Grambling State and Morgan State have been meeting with officials from Phoenix and the Marshall fund. Morgan State officials are “in discussions” about a possible partnership to offer developmental courses, says its president, David Wilson. The terms of any possible agreement “are still under review,” he says.

Grambling is considering a program aimed at former students who left because they lost eligibility for financial aid as a result of poor academic performance. The idea has been a “hard sell for the faculty,” says the provost, Janet A. Guyden. The discussions are on hold until the new president, Willie D. Larkin, who took office in July, has a chance to review it.

A New Direction

At Phoenix, the alliance has been championed by Byron Jones, chief financial officer and a graduate of Tuskegee University, an HBCU. “This is about expanding access” for students at HBCUs, according to Mr. Jones, who says he wants to see those institutions raise their game in distance education. It’s not about winning over students to Phoenix, he says, noting that those who attend ​HBCUs tend to be younger than University of Phoenix students and are more interested in a traditional campus experience: “All we’re doing is augmenting some of that.”

In March, Phoenix played host to officials from Florida A&M, Grambling State, Morgan State, and the Marshall fund at the university’s headquarters. A grants officer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also attended that session, but it has made no commitment to the effort, and neither Phoenix nor the fund has asked for it.

“I’m not sure there’s a particular role” for the foundation to play, says Suzanne Walsh, deputy director of postsecondary education at Gates. She is watching the project because she’s intrigued by “the unusual suspects” involved, she says, and by some of its ideas, like helping students return to college after becoming ineligible for financial aid. Sometimes, she says, grant makers can help by just “amplifying” projects that have promise.

In June, Phoenix’s parent company, the Apollo Education Group,announced to investors that it planned to replace the problem-plagued online-learning classroom with a commercially available product. Students at HBCUs that take part in the program would have access to the same technology that Phoenix students have during the transition, including any new elements that come into use. Mr. Taylor says he has been assured by Mr. Jones and others at Phoenix that the HBCUs would not be getting Phoenix’s castoffs.

Mr. Moore, of Florida A&M, says that he wasn’t familiar with Phoenix’s decision to replace its platform, but that it’s not a concern for him: “I’m interested in the human capital. It’s the know-how” that Phoenix can lend to his university that interests him.

Florida A&M plans to use Phoenix’s instructional technology and faculty-training programs to train its own faculty members and others who teach at its 550-student Developmental Research School, which includes elementary- as well as middle- and high-school classes. The goal, he says, is to ensure that both students and instructors can learn and teach in an environment that blends face-to-face and online education.

Some of the school’s students don’t get much exposure to technology at home, Mr. Moore says, and this project can provide “a critical set of skills for low-wealth families.”

Although Phoenix’s online platform as well as its training program for its own instructors is designed for college-leveling teaching, Mr. Moore says Florida A&M’s school can adapt to that. He says Phoenix has also promised to provide the school with tablets and other classroom technology.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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