A Few Higher Ed Tabs

“Sunset on Campus” by SLT

A nonprofit entity affiliated with the University of Arkansas System has been in discussions about a potential purchase of the for-profit University of Phoenix, a spokesman for the UA System confirmed today.

The University of Phoenix is one of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges.


Hinkel said the nonprofit entity affiliated “would support and facilitate the transition of the University of Phoenix to completely independent nonprofit status, while supporting the university’s mission of advancing high-quality, career focused education.” The process to nonprofit status would be a gradual one, Hinkel noted.

This is fascinating to me. Phoenix was once a juggernaut with roughly half a million enrollments at their peak. Many people thought (I was not one of them) that they represented the future in some way, and yet here they are about to make a transition to a nonprofit, and as part of the Arkansas system, of all places.

According to the USA Today article, the University of Phoenix has about 75,000 students. The newspaper said the college, whose courses are largely offered online, received about $930 million in federal money meant for student financial aid in fiscal year 2020-2021. At its peak, the university had about 470,000 students in 2010, USA Today reported.

Enrollment is perhaps only the most tangible and consequential measure of the diverging fortunes of, and increasingly fierce competition between, flagships and regionals. Flagships typically dominate the attention of elected officials and ordinary citizens in their states. They’re the marquee institutions, the research centers, the academic powerhouses, the foundation of a statewide alumni base, and often the state’s athletics brand, too.

But the workhorses of public higher education in most states are the regional public universities, the less renowned four-year institutions with teaching missions that exist in the shadows of the flagships’ spotlight. And shifting demographics, reduced levels of state support, and hobbled state oversight have led many regional universities to suffer.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Honestly, I thought University of Phoenix was just a scam. It certainly has a scammy name. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an applicant witha degree from there, although I don’t usually look at the academic background of people with more than a few years of experience.

  2. ptfe says:

    Amazing reading up on the history of University of Phoenix, which seems to jump from one get-rich-quick scheme to another. It started out ostensibly as a continuing ed institution, but made money off corporations putting management through higher ed trainings. Then they eliminated any pretense of research, went public, and started bagging big money interests. That led them to the student loan pipeline that basically poured FAFSA cash into shareholder wallets. Once that got shut down, they moved to the GI Bill teat and hammered recruitment in the military. With the military now stonewalling them, they’re quickly running out of money trees to pluck bills from.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    A bit of conjecture, the growth of the flagships at the expense of the regional’s, likely points to the flagships dipping deeper into the applicant pool. Students who in the past would have ended up at a regional are now squeaking into the flagship. While declining enrollments overall that are driven by demographics are keeping the regionals from doing the same.

  4. @Sleeping Dog: Agreed.

    And in recent years the test-optional admissions standards mean students who couldn’t have gotten into their first choice now can (of course, that doesn’t explain the overall trend, but it does exacerbate it).

    The reality is that higher ed in the US was built on the assumption of unending population growth and while the population does continue to grow overall, it has slowed and in some states pops are stagnant. Just looking at the map it seems to me that states with pop growth aren’t having this problem.

  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Sounds like AZ wants to add a competitor to WGU into their existing online pipeline with Rio Salado CC and ASU Global. It is certainly a choice. I’ve no idea how they overcome the perception of Phoenix as a diploma mill. And frankly, I don’t think they should be able to.

    The Flagship versus Regional thing doesn’t surprise me either. Gen Z is smaller than the Millenial generation and decreased enrollments are partially a function of that. Community college enrollments in the US are down year over year for the past decade, for example.

    Partially it is also a function of our collective recovery process from the pandemic. We have fewer students opting in to higher ed, and my anecdotal experience has been that the incoming students we are are treating higher ed differently now versus in 2019. And many of them are taking longer to get the hang of how to be a college student after 1 – 3 years of basically getting passed along as long they showed up and submitted *anything.*

    About halfway through Fall 2020, I made a couple of predictions about Higher Ed winners (or, more accurately: survivors) and losers in the COVID aftermath, and everything I’m observing supports them still.

    The winners / survivors: the highest tiers of prestigious private universities, professional schools, and liberal arts colleges. Flagship state universities. Regional universities and community colleges in population centers large enough to support them through local learners. Community colleges in smaller metros that have a strong workforce / career offerings and/or ties to a specific flagship that guarantee a pipeline of future students.

    The losers; Less prestigious private universities and liberal arts colleges. Smaller bible colleges. HBCUs outside of the Howard and Spelman tier. Regionals outside of larger population areas. Community colleges that cover service areas outside of regional population centers.

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: To followup and use examples that both Dr. Taylor and I have a frame of reference, I think that students/parents who do not get into Auburn/Alabama/UT Austin/Texas A&M are going to be increasingly more likely to stay close to home and pursue higher ed through Dallas County CC / UT Dallas than go out to Stephen F. Austin, or South Alabama rather than travel to Troy.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    …built on the assumption of unending population growth…

    We certainly see this in NH, the state is old with a shrinking school age population add to that there is little state money allocated for higher ed resulting in in-state tuition being too close to what out-of-state tuition is in surrounding states. Add to that Massachusetts has a program to poach NH students, if you are an out of state student that lives within 50 miles of a Mass university you can pay in-state rates at those schools.

  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Oh, wow. So for example STEM minded students who live in the populated parts of Southern NH can pay basically the same amount to go to UMass Lowell instead of UNH, and get access to the internship and alumni network that extends through the 495 Tech Corridor (if that is still what they call it – I left New England 20 years ago). That is huge.

  9. @Sleeping Dog: It has been my impression from what I have observed that the issue is quite accurate in New England states.

  10. Jay L Gischer says:

    The last chart amuses me as it puts California in the same category as Texas and Florida and Georgia, but that category does not include New York, Illinois, or Massachusetts.

  11. Grommit Gunn says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Indeed.

    In this instance, I think it primarily a case of whether or not the state’s regional level higher ed infrastructure has been able to keep up with population growth. While Gen Z may be smaller than Millennials, year by year, most of those light blue states are the ones in the higher quintiles of % state population growth.

  12. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    My nephew took advantage of the program. In his case coming out of HS, he was interested in a particular type of art’s education and the program at Salem State was superior to the one in NH, and they really weren’t equivalent. He would have considered Salem, even at out-of-state rates, but by the time he graduated, his career plans changed and the possible difference in cost wouldn’t have provided a benefit.

  13. Grommit Gunn says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Nice! I mentioned this to my mom, and she told me that one of my nephews in the Hudson Valley got in-state tuition at the state school in North Adams. So it may be any border state and not just NH?

  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Grommit Gunn:

    It is all the border states and with some, I believe there is reciprocity, so Mass students can go to a neighboring states school.

    Earlier you mentioned U of Lowell, they are widely known for their engineering programs and have been since the 50’s, but so many other schools fall into that 50 mile radius, given that Mass is probably only about 100 miles wide.

    Given all the contretemps regarding Florida and the attacks on higher ed, I’ve been thinking about reaching out to one of our legislative-critters and suggesting that NH offer in-state tuition to Florida residents.

  15. Jen says:

    I’ve been thinking about reaching out to one of our legislative-critters and suggesting that NH offer in-state tuition to Florida residents.

    Would they survive the winter?

    (Seriously though, a good idea. Reverse snowbirds!)

  16. CSK says:

    With respect to Ben Edelman: Relatively few people are granted tenure at Harvard. I had a non-tenure track teaching job at HBS (though they gave me an additional two years for being good) so I was able to observe this phenomenon at first-hand dispassionately.

    Most tenure decisions are made on the basis of “do we want to have lunch with this person for the next thirty years?” Apprently Edelman didn’t make the cut.

  17. JohnSF says:

    Let this remind me: I really don’t understand America at all, LOL.
    It’s just so different from UK higher education.
    Did/do the “regionals” concentrate more on technical/vocational subjects?

    Two massive differences: “law schools” are not the thing in Britain that they are in the US.
    And even more, if any UK vice-chancellor propsed making a football teamthe flagship of the university, his feet wouldn’t touch the floor before his arse hit the pavement. 🙂

    The only thing even remotely, distantly reminiscent is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race (and just maybe, for rugby fans, the Varisty Matches).
    And the boat race only got public attention because it’s both oldish, and a long time favourite with the bookies.

  18. Sleeping Dog says:


    My freshman year I was in Plymouth, there was a young woman from Florida in that class. Her grandparents lived in North Conway as I recall and she would come summers and fell in love with NH. Can’t remember which, she either didn’t return after Thanksgiving or withdrew at semesters end. Truth was that was a brutal winter.

  19. Sleeping Dog says:


    Most regionals started with a mission to provide school teachers or to meet an economic training needs for specific industries such as agriculture. They were 4 year programs and were called ‘colleges.’ Over time they began expanding the offerings into business and liberal arts, a select number began granting engineering degrees. Eventually the programs looked pretty much like the states’ flagship universities, but without grad programs or research. Over the last 20 years, most states dropped the college moniker and refers to these schools as ‘state’ universities.

    To add to the confusion, the flagship schools can have remote campuses. I believe that Dr T is at the Univ of Alabama-Troy a part of the U of Alabama system, rather than Troy State University of Alabama.

    Oh, at all this can vary by state.

  20. DA says:

    My wife works at a regional in Pennsylvania. The future is uncertain; one of the universities in her system recently did significant faculty “retrenchment,” i.e. layoffs. So far her campus has avoided that. People do feel like Penn State is the part of the problem, with a network of branch campuses that competes with the regionals.

  21. @CSK: Tenure is, indeed, rare at Harvard. I am still struck by the fact that instead of being rare because of strict standards the Dean can basically decide.

  22. @Sleeping Dog: Troy is independent from the University of Alabama system, having its own BoT.

    But, as you note, it did start as a normal school (teacher’s college, for anyone unfamiliar).

  23. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Is there such a thing as an abnormal school?
    And if so, how does one apply?

  24. JohnSF says:

    In the UK: polytechnics were probably an approximation of your “regionals”.
    Vocational oriented, funded and (sort of) controlled by local government.
    Though from the outset most had lots of engineering courses; which may speak to the perceived social inferiority of engineering in the UK? (Which is another massive topic for another day)
    Their conversion into “independent” (ie corporate charitable) universities was to a large extent
    due to 1980’s/90’s Conservatives urge to destroy local government structures.
    And also entailed introducing student loans.
    A strategy which has come back to bite them on the arse: because we now have have large numbers of indebted students, no local government to pass the blame to, and the undermining of the old local vocational systems.
    Colleges of Further Education have been shamefully starved of fund to the point of near collapse.
    As with many things: it will take twenty years of Labour government to repair the damage.