Private Colleges Growing Quickly

When Amphitheater Middle School teacher Theresa Marie Chavez decided she wanted to get her doctorate and pursue a career as an education administrator, she first looked at returning to her alma mater, the UA.

But upon visiting the University of Arizona, it quickly became apparent to the then-single mother that getting an advanced degree from the public institution wasn’t an option if she wanted to stay afloat financially and spend time with her son, Ryan Patrick.

"I worked full time, and I needed to work full time," she said.

Drawn by the abundance of night and weekend classes that allowed her to keep her day job, Chavez enrolled at the University of Phoenix, earning her doctoral degree in July.

Chavez is among an increasing number of Arizona residents using private institutions to fulfill their higher-education goals. More than 20,400 Arizona students are enrolled in University of Phoenix programs.

Other private institutions also are growing fast. Enrollment at the University of Phoenix and 35 other private colleges in Arizona grew 34 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2007. Meanwhile, enrollment at the state’s three public universities and 21 community colleges grew a little more than 1 percent.

More students still attend public colleges rather than private institutions in Arizona to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher degree: 331,800 vs. 250,000 in fall 2007.

But as Arizona’s three public universities seek to expand their degree offerings into all regions of the state through better community college partnerships, increased online offerings and the construction of new regional four-year colleges, they’ll have to reach students who may have already decided the traditional system isn’t for them.

Using faculty focused solely on teaching, not research, and sharing costs with community colleges, cities and towns, the three public universities plan to offer degrees that would be cheaper to both the student and the state, increasing access to populations who wouldn’t have attended college in the past.

Still, some public and private college administrators say the two sectors of higher education won’t be competing for the same students because the institutions have different missions.
Private colleges "round out the picture," said Bill Pepicello, University of Phoenix president.

"What private education brings is additional options for students," Pepicello said, "and that’s probably the key, overall."

To help accomplish their goals, leaders at the public universities and the Board of Regents want to provide wider options to students.

One plan is partnering with community colleges to share space and costs while creating several stand-alone campuses in rural areas.

In the future, partnerships with private colleges like the University of Phoenix could be in the mix too, Pepicello said.

The UA wants to expand models it already uses, such as offering programs online or during evenings and weekends, to reach students who may never have thought of college, as well as those who thought the traditional system wasn’t right for them.

It already has seen some signs of success.

Enrollment at UA South, a branch of the university that has several regional campuses, increased about 35 percent in two years, said Mike Proctor, dean of the UA’s Outreach College.
Enrollment in online classes is up about 45 percent in two years, and evening and weekend programs have nearly tripled in size in two years, Proctor said.

The UA continues to build on its relatively small number of flexible programs that fit into students’ lives, he said. But it, and the rest of the public system, may have to do more.
Students who enter Arizona’s private colleges do so for a variety of reasons, including having to work while attending school or being unable to move to the Phoenix area, Tucson or Flagstaff to attend a state university.

The University of Phoenix calls them "working learners" and has spent time figuring out how to get them the extra attention they need.

"We try to make education a seamless part of our students’ lives," Pepicello said, through delivery options and personal attention.

"Pretty strict"
For Chavez, the middle-school teacher, earning a doctorate was about helping advance in her career. But it also was about personal validation.

The experience at the University of Phoenix was rigorous, involving complex classes, research and, ultimately, a dissertation.

"University of Phoenix is pretty strict," she said. "If you miss a class, you can set yourself behind by as much as a year."

The English teacher did her homework while her son played or slept. She often logged long hours on the weekends to complete assignments.

While she has aspirations to become a principal someday, Chavez said she’s enjoying her time as a teacher, adding that the doctorate has made her better.

It’s also impressed her students, who call her Dr. Chavez.

"Having a teacher who’s willing to do the kind of work to get a doctorate, it shows them how committed I am to education."

Increasingly, both public and private institutions want to reach students like Chavez. But the competition only goes so far.

"You’ll never see the University of Phoenix offering daytime classes on campus three times a week, because that’s not who we are," Pepicello said.

There are other differences in the institutions’ missions.

The University of Phoenix has an "open admissions" policy of giving a chance to anyone with a high school diploma. Public university admission requirements are more exclusive.

Private schools also cost more. In-state tuition at the UA cost $5,542 last year, while the University of Phoenix’s Southern Arizona programs cost $11,640 last year, twice as much.

The University of Phoenix focuses on students who demand quality and convenience, Pepicello said.

"Education needs to be something that fits people’s lives and becomes part of it, the same way that work or shopping or banking is," he said. "It needs to be that kind of accessibility, and many people are willing to pay a premium price for that." (

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