The Public Interest

Education for profit

David L. Kirp

Summer 2003

IN October of 1997, the New Yorker ran an article about the University of Phoenix.  The piece was titled “Drive-Thru U,” and all the familiar markers of a university—library, bookstore, campus— appeared in quotation marks to denote that they weren’t quite the real thing. The campus, the author James Traub marveled, was more like an office building or industrial park: an “outlet,” school officials called it. The bookstore carried only textbooks. The library was “wherever there’s a computer.” And the university itself was a subsidiary of a for-profit company called the Apollo Group. Phoenix proudly billed itself as “the largest private university in the United States,” but to most of the magazine’s readers, accustomed to imagining higher education as pastoral and ivied, not as a publicly traded company, it was a dangerous interloper.

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