Adult school opens in Md.

University of Phoenix targeting East Coast

May 02, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The small gathering in a conference room of a Columbia hotel late last week hardly seemed like the vanguard of the revolution, but to many in higher education that's exactly what it was.

The 17 people were attending the first class in Maryland of the University of Phoenix, the rapidly growing for-profit school with a consumer-friendly, fast-paced brand of adult education that is challenging traditional models.

"When I heard they were coming up here, I couldn't wait," says Narda Terry, 52, of Baltimore, who learned of the school from family members in Florida.

Terry is one of more than 60,000 enrolled at the University of Phoenix, which started in that Arizona city in 1976 with eight students and now offers classroom courses in 13 states as well as online courses.

It has blanketed the West and moved into the South. Maryland is its first foray onto the East Coast. Pennsylvania is next, with applications pending in New York and Massachusetts and plans for an application in New Jersey, where it was turned down by state authorities last year after objections were raised that the school has no full-time faculty.

The University of Phoenix is the most prominent example of the many changes rapidly altering and diversifying higher education. A burgeoning number of schools -- both public and for-profit -- now offer long-distance learning via the Internet, bypassing state regulators. Many companies are forming schools of their own to sell training courses. And a growing number of students seek them out, not for degrees, but for certificates in various high-technology and business skills.

Many in Maryland's first Phoenix class -- an undergraduate course on organizational behavior -- say they were attracted by the school's schedule, which pays no attention to the traditional academic calendar of semesters and quarters.

"I checked out Johns Hopkins and Maryland and Loyola," says Mike Varacalle, 36, of Westminster, who has also attended Carroll Community College. "They didn't have a program that would fit my schedule right now. I looked into this and got really excited."

Classes start at all times of the year -- two more will begin this week. They meet one night a week for four hours; another night the students get together in smaller study groups. Five weeks later, you have three credits.

Phoenix students must be at least 23 years old and employed. Most in the school's undergraduate program come in with about two years' worth of credits, or an associate's degree from a community college. Taking one course every five weeks, they can earn 60 credits to complete their B.A. in about two years, the same amount of time it would take going to school full time.

"We find that adult learners are able to assimilate more information," says Robert Barker, the school's Orlando, Fla.-based regional vice president, of the accelerated schedule.

But the Phoenix approach has drawn fire from one of its main competitors, the University of Maryland University College, the adult learning division of the University System of Maryland. That program has about 39,000 students enrolled worldwide.

"I think the University of Phoenix offers a quality product, but for some students the amount of contact time they have with faculty is more important than for others," says Robert E. Myer, interim president of University College.

"Our students have about one-third more contact time" than those at Phoenix, he says. "You don't really know what is happening during those study sessions. The students could just be out having pizza."

Karen Palmer, the enthusiastic instructor in Phoenix's first class, says that's not the case.

"They have specific assignments they must complete in those sessions," says Palmer, who, like all Phoenix instructors, has a day job, hers at the National Imaging and Mapping Agency in Bethesda. She previously taught for Phoenix in Florida.

"That's where some of the best work gets done, where the students learn to work in teams like employers want," she says of the study sessions.

The first class was in the Columbia Hilton, because Phoenix's Maryland headquarters in a nearby office park off Route 175 was getting its finishing touches. The "campus" is the first floor of an office building that will have 18 classrooms, nine smaller rooms for study groups and a suite of offices.

"This will be our student union," says Pamela J. Lemons, Phoenix's director of academic affairs in Maryland, looking into an empty room that will be equipped with vending machines, a telephone and other equipment.

She says it with a laugh, but it's a serious part of Phoenix's bottom-line approach -- you don't pay for football teams or cheerleaders or chess clubs or student unions; you pay for classes in subjects the market demands, mainly business. The price in Maryland is $270 a credit, above University College's $183 charge, but competitive with private school rates.

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