The nation's largest for-profit university wants to establish three "campuses" in the heart of the Baltimore-Washington corridor to offer courses to working adults -- a move that has shaken the major players in Maryland higher education.
A year ago, few in Maryland higher education circles had heard of the University of Phoenix, which is based in Arizona and offers courses via the Internet and around the nation at campuses and in rented office centers.
This Phoenix is rising, and it's challenging higher education's cherished assumptions.
"Many of us fear substantial changes in our circumstances of life and work," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, "up to and including, in some cases, the loss of our jobs."
Some area faculty members refer to the Arizona school as "McPhoenix" or a "diploma mill" and regard its attempt to establish an East Coast beachhead in Maryland -- the nearest Phoenix campus is in Detroit -- as an invasion of body snatchers.
But Langenberg says Phoenix, whose programs are accredited by a regional association of schools and colleges, "has to be taken very seriously. It's not a fly-by-night operation."
The upstart Phoenix -- which has 42,000 students on 52 campuses and learning centers in 12 states and Puerto Rico -- has petitioned the Maryland Higher Education Commission for permission to hold classes in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties.
Phoenix officials haven't specified where they want to rent space for classrooms, but they are targeting the Interstate 95 and 270 corridors of Central Maryland with offerings in business, accounting, management and nursing, among other fields. Phoenix is proposing courses leading to a master's degree in business administration, the bread-and-butter program of several area colleges and universities.
The new programs would compete in some of the ripest marketplaces for higher education in the state.
The University of Maryland system's Shady Grove campus in the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County, for example, has 4,700 students, most of them part-timers attending evening classes. A half-mile away, the Johns Hopkins University operates a thriving graduate center. The for-profit Strayer College is building a classroom building nearby.
The first thing Phoenix will do if it wins state approval, Langenberg said, is "put up a big red sign high above I-95 north of Washington, so that every driver can see it. In my travels, I've seen them do that everywhere they've set up shop."
A unit of Apollo Group Inc., which is listed on the NASDAQ exchange, Phoenix appears to be the wave of the future in higher education.
"The day will come when we'll be competing with institutions like Phoenix not only in Maryland, but all over the world," Langenberg said. "The walls are crumbling."
Phoenix courses typically run five or six weeks, four hours per class, year-round. Students who miss a class can take it online. The university has a "virtual" library on the Internet that is open all the time.
Tuition ranges from $6,000 to $7,000 a year for degree candidates, about $2,000 more than at the University of Maryland. But Phoenix students have few other expenses beyond textbooks, which they can order by credit card from the school's "virtual bookstore."
Upon approval, said Laura Palmer Noone, Phoenix's academic vice president, the school would hire part-time faculty and rent classroom space so that no student has to drive more than 20 minutes to get to class.
"We've created a system in which we're able to replicate quality control from location to location," Noone says, "but it's for adult students who have no interest in fight songs or football teams."
To the charge that part-time Phoenix professors, none of whom are tenured, aren't involved enough with their students, Noone said most teach five or six courses a year. "They're very engaged," she said.
Noone said Phoenix centers "typically start small. Maybe after a year we'll have 200 to 300 students." Its 2-year-old Detroit center far exceeded the university's estimates, growing to 1,000 students almost immediately.
Patricia S. Florestano, Maryland secretary of higher education, said Phoenix's petition "will be treated like any other," with an objective look at such factors as enrollment trends. She said she has been approached by Gerard E. Evans, an influential Annapolis lobbyist hired by Apollo to promote Phoenix's cause.
"I told him he was wasting his time," said Florestano. Lobbyists will not influence the commission's decision on Phoenix, she said.
The state's two largest university faculty groups have weighed in with letters of concern to Florestano and Langenberg.