When I was an undergraduate, the World Wide Web was coming into prominence within the world of academics. For years prior to my freshman orientation at the University of Delaware, I had gained a lot of experience and familiarity with the internet as it was at the time — newsgroups, email, bulletin boards, and even chat rooms. But in college, every dorm room was wired with Ethernet — and had a direct connection to the internet. No longer did I have a need for a dial-up modems to be connected to the worldwide computer network.
I started websites for departments at the university and taught professors how to design their own. I probably charged $10 an hour for my services — a steal these days. While I was studying music education, I made a point to make the most out of the resources the university made available to me. And I spread myself a little thin; my grades suffered, but I was involved in many different curricular pursuits and extracurricular activities.
During the course of my time as an undergraduate, I was a leader in several student organizations and participated in many more. I dabbled with several different minors before setting on my final approach to graduation. I enrolled in many courses that were not part of my degree requirements just because I wanted to learn.
In my last semester, I enrolled in a graduate-level class, multimedia literacy, which focused on burgeoning online technologies. The professor’s own research project was developing web-based classroom instruction. Distance learning previously involved university courses somehow taught via mail, and later delivered by radio and television. The development of the internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, opened up new opportunities to vastly improve the quality of education over a distance.
As someone deeply passionate about both education and technology, I couldn’t resist.
A few years into the future, my diverse set of passions began causing some problems. I was employed by a not-for-profit organization, not earning much money, working far too many hours, effectively earning much less than minimum wage and commuting a long and expensive distance just to do it. Not persuaded by the argument that working towards the organization’s mission makes up for the lack of compensation and the personal sacrifices I had to make — sacrifices that include a financial independence that could never be in sight — I made some changes. I’ve written about this here in the past.
I got a new job, took a break from some major expenses for a while thanks to family, and put myself in a better position to be self-sufficient. After a few years of working in the financial industry, and while it still wasn’t clear that I’d be self-employed full-time due to something as crazy as advertising revenue from a website, I took an opportunity to have my employer pay for graduate level education. By now, college degrees pursued mostly or fully online were common. Traditional universities and colleges were slow to get on board with this concept, even though the technological groundwork had been laid at some of the best universities and colleges, so the most popular choices were for-profit companies like that behind the University of Phoenix Online.
Several years ago, after completing my master’s degree in business administration at the University of Phoenix Online, I wrote about my experiences in a series on Consumerism Commentary. It still continues to be a popular series. In 2008, I wrote about my decision, the admissions process, course logistics, the MBA curriculum, and the team learning education method put into use by the university. In 2011, I re-evaluated my experience.
When I decided to enroll in the University of Phoenix Online, I knew I was fighting an uphill battle in terms of respect among my peers. I’ve never been one to care much for how other people thought of me, but my assumption when enrolling was that as technology were to continue to advance, online learning would become more mainstream.
I think it has somewhat gained more acceptance, but it hasn’t yet reached that level of respectability, if only among human resource departments in the corporate world. But as traditional universities and colleges began to see some of the successes — including profitability — of online learning, they’ve begun to copy the business model. Social respectability of a degree has more to do with the prestige of a brand rather than quality of education, so when a “top-ten” school in any particular field offers an online-based degree program, it combined the benefits of the online learning environment with the socially respectable brand name.
A reader contacted me recently and asked if I would recommend that he enroll in the University of Phoenix Online to pursue an MBA like I did. I haven’t followed the changes in the curriculum, so I don’t know what enrolling today would look like. I don’t get much out of an alumni network if there is one; but then again, I also don’t take advantage of the various networking opportunities afforded to me by my undergraduate education, either. My enrollment in the University of Phoenix has given my one lasting benefit: access to the university library, which includes the ProQuest database and other helpful research tools.
The experience of learning at the school was not perfectly ideal, but I was able to do most of the coursework on my own time, I learned a few tips and tricks that helped with growing my business, and I gained a lot of experience dealing with difficult people. I don’t know whether all of that is worth the total cost of the education. I didn’t have to pay the fees thanks to my company’s educational reimbursement program.
I do believe that I might have been better served by waiting until my choice of online degree programs was wider. Within just a year or two of starting my degree, traditional universities and colleges began offering similar types of online degree programs, and many were offered for less money.
The choice to enroll in an online degree program depends on goals. If you’re looking for an easy way to earn a degree, forget about it; online learning can be much more strenuous and involve much more work than going to classes in person. If you’re looking to improve your résumé, you want a brand-name degree from a school that historically has a significant presence in your career. That’s, unfortunately, just how it often goes at the executive level in business. If you intend on working for yourself and want to build your knowledge, the brand of the degree doesn’t matter as much.
These days, I rarely share the fact that I completed an MBA degree at the University of Phoenix Online. Not only does the school not inspire confidence, but MBA degrees are falling out of fashion — probably due to the fact that it’s a go-to graduate degree for people who may not have any other skills or passions than a generic “business.” There were a few years when it was in fashion in the corporate world to respect MBA degrees, but perhaps as a reaction to the popularity or the fact that many MBA recipients did not live up to expectations, the degree fell into disfavor.
Maybe I should have pursued a concentration in an area like finance, but that didn’t occur to me at the time, and there are degrees other than the MBA that might have been more appropriate for someone interested in finance.
Lifelong education is an important piece of my personal mission, and it doesn’t matter to me whether a degree from one school carries more weight than one from another school, because my goal is the pursuit of education. But still, I try to avoid letting people make assumptions about me based on the course of graduate education I chose. A degree from a different school, although that would have required some foresight, might remove that burden.
The reader who is questioning his choice to enroll at the University of Phoenix Online also asked: “I’ve also noticed that they’ve upped their advertising efforts on TV lately. Should I be thinking of them any less by seeing that?” I think it’s somewhat amusing that Phylicia Rashād is the new spokesperson for the University of Phoenix. I recognized her voice immediately, but she and her television husband, Bill Cosby, are now both associated with higher education, Bill with Temple University.
All colleges advertise in some form. All universities need to profit. The economic difference between traditional universities and colleges, usually seen as “non-profit,” and for-profit universities, are slight, while the governing differences and the ownership differences are significant. I don’t think the advertising makes much of a difference. Advertising represents an expense that’s not going directly into the pockets of ownership, but it’s not being reinvested in its staff or aiding the reduction of tuition and fees, either.
Photo: Flickr/Les Roches