A few years ago, Doris Ford was taking business courses through the University of Phoenix.
After spending about two years with Phoenix, she decided to leave the university and transfer to a community college. Today, she's glad she did.
For-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix make up a large and growing share of the higher education offerings around the Oklahoma City area. Such institutions have heard criticism in recent years from policymakers and others, who say they leave students like Ford deeply in debt.
But officials with those institutions say they fill an important role, offering flexibility and support to working adults who might not otherwise be able to complete a degree.
Ford, a bus driver, decided to transfer after speaking with several co-workers who had gone through four years of classes at Phoenix. Each was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, she said, and their degrees didn't seem to be doing them much good.
Now a student at Rose State College, Ford said she's glad she transferred when she did. Although she's carrying some student debt from her time at Phoenix, she said, she would have had to take out more loans to finish there.
If she could start her college career over knowing what she knows now, Ford said, she would begin at a community college rather than a for-profit school.
“I wouldn't go near Phoenix,” she said.
Although he acknowledged the relatively high cost of for-profit colleges, University of Phoenix spokesman Ryan Rauzon said the university offers programs geared toward students for whom traditional institutions might not be an option.
Schools such as Phoenix also offer a level of flexibility that working adults need, Rauzon said. Most of the university's students have full-time jobs and many have families, he said, meaning a traditional college model doesn't fit their schedule. Many of those students find online courses or classes that meet one night a week more appealing, he said.
Rauzon said Phoenix's tuition levels, though higher, are more predictable than those at public schools. As colleges and universities in Oklahoma and across the country increased their tuition levels, Phoenix officials announced a tuition freeze earlier this month for new and current students.
Rauzon also said that, unlike public colleges and universities, Phoenix doesn't receive public subsidies.
State and federal higher education leaders have made boosting college graduation rates a priority in recent years. Many leaders, including Oklahoma higher education chancellor Glen Johnson, have made attracting adults with college credit but no degree a key component of those plans.
Education leaders have done a good job of promoting the value of returning to college after several years away to finish a college degree, Rauzon said. But traditional classes aren't always a viable option for those students, he said. In those cases, he said, schools like the University of Phoenix might be a better fit.
“We think our university provides a value,” he said.