If you’ve watched the Arizona Cardinals play during this year’s NFL season, you may have seen a commercial for the University of Phoenix featuring Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the school earlier this year.
It’s a powerful commercial, both heartwarming and melancholy. However, should Fitzgerald — widely regarded as one of the better role models in sports today — really be supporting a for-profit college?
These types of institutions, which offer flexible course schedules and career-oriented education, are uniquely suited to professional athletes, many of whom opted out of finishing college to pursue their athletic careers.
As a result, Fitzgerald isn’t the only star athlete who’s become a University of Phoenix graduate during his career. For example, Arizona Diamondback’s All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt completed his degree in 2013.
However, for-profit colleges have faced criticism for misleading and defrauding students, leaving them with large amounts of debt and little to show for it. Amid the collapse of industry giants like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has even created a “Student Aid Enforcement Unit.”
The University of Phoenix has not been immune to such criticism. The college is currently facing an inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission over deceptive marketing and recruiting practices.
For two years, the University of Phoenix’s accrediting agency placed the school on “notice status,” a sanction meaning that an institution’s course of action could cause it to lose accreditation. This status was due to concerns over governance, student assessment, and faculty scholarship and research for doctoral programs. While not part of the decision for notice status, the accrediting agency also noted other issues including the university’s low graduation rates and heavy reliance on federal student financial aid.
In 2015, the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) suspended the college from recruiting on military bases and accessing federal education funding for service members, claiming that the University of Phoenix sponsored improper recruiting events. However, DOD has since lifted that ban, instead opting to place the college on a “heightened compliance review” that will last one year.
Until July of 2016, the University of Phoenix also included arbitration clauses in its enrollment agreements, meaning that students claiming to have been defrauded could not take the company to court – a practice that has been criticized by both ED and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Amid these scandals, enrollment at University of Phoenix campuses fell 22 percent this year, marking a 70 percent loss since 2010. And in 2015, the school laid off nearly 500 workers, almost eight percent of its workforce.
Some of these issues, like shaky accreditation and the DOD ban, have mostly been resolved. This is due in large part to the work of Timothy P. Slottow. After serving as executive vice president and chief financial officer at the University of Michigan, Slottow was hired as president of the University of Phoenix in 2014. Since assuming that role, he has helped the university navigate troubled waters, saying that the University of Phoenix is “head-down focused on continuous improvement” for its students.
Only time will tell if the University of Phoenix can continue righting the ship and become a valuable option for America’s students. While the school seems to have charted a better course, celebrity role models like Larry Fitzgerald may want to exercise caution when giving their endorsement.