One of the biggest colleges in the country is about to get a lot smaller. The University of Phoenix has announced plans to close programs, shrink its enrollment and introduce new admissions requirements for students.
The entire for-profit college industry has been under pressure for years now, as lawmakers, regulators and student advocates have pushed back against a business model that left many students deep in debt — often without degrees to show for it.
When the University of Phoenix was founded in 1976, every student had to be at least 25 and have a full-time job, says spokesman Mark Brenner. Then about 10 years ago, Phoenix ditched those requirements and started recruiting as many people as possible. Enrollment swelled, but so did complaints of abusive recruiting tactics, outsized student debt and dismal graduation rates.
Now admissions standards are coming back.
“We’re looking at ways to provide the right diagnostics to make sure that the students that are coming to us have the best chance to be successful,” Brenner says.
Brenner would not elaborate on the new requirements, but says students who aren’t deemed college-ready will be offered remedial training. Phoenix will also close some campuses and retire most of its associate degree programs.
The university is preparing for the new “gainful employment” rule taking effect July 1, says Ben Miller with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Career education programs will have to prove their graduates earn enough to afford their loan payments, or risk losing access to federal student aid.
“Phoenix knew a lot of its associate degrees would not fair well under gainful employment, and so it closed them down rather than suffering the reputational risk of having failing programs,” Miller says.
Students are also demanding a better return on their tuition dollars, says Corey Greendale, who tracks the for-profit college industry at First Analysis.
“There are so many forces that are causing institutions to focus on outcomes,” he says. “A lot of this would be happening, I think, regardless.”