YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD of the University of Phoenix, but it has more students than Harvard, Yale or Notre Dame —- combined.

There is a reason you probably have not heard of the University of Phoenix. It represents a new development in higher education and one that the establishment does not welcome.

The vast majority of colleges and universities are non-profit organizations, but the University of Phoenix is not. To some people, non-profit organizations have a sort of halo around them. It is another example of the power of mere words that the fact that one organization’s income is called “profit” and another’s income is not makes such a huge difference to so many people, including the government, which treats non-profit organizations differently.

Officials of non-profit organizations are not volunteers donating their time. The average university president has a six-figure salary and many also get free use of a big, expensive house. There are three university presidents whose annual salaries and benefits exceed half a million dollars a year each. In addition, it is not uncommon for top professors in medical schools to earn even more than their university presidents, while college athletic coaches often have the highest incomes of all.

Nevertheless, it is considered shocking in genteel academia that the University of Phoenix is legally set up as an organization that is out to make a buck, even though most of us get our food, our shelter and our medical care from such organizations. Indeed, those of us who were not born rich and who don’t want to live on welfare are out there every working day trying to make a buck.

Ironically, the real reason for the opposition to the University of Phoenix is precisely because it would threaten the money coming in to conventional, non-profit colleges and universities. As a new institution, Phoenix does not have to do all the costly things that conventional academic institutions have been doing for many generations, so it can charge lower tuition.

For example, it does not have the expenses of a huge campus, a football stadium and dormitories. Its students are largely adults scattered all around the country, who communicate with the university on the Internet. The University of Phoenix also does not have to have the huge and costly libraries that most universities have because it provides electronic access to more than 3,000 journals, while the need for books is not nearly as great, because this university specializes primarily in business courses, and so does not need to cover everything from astronomy to zoology.

What an economist might call greater efficiency is depicted by conventional colleges and universities as “unfair competition.” Unfortunately, the various licensing and accrediting agencies have requirements which reflect the situation of liberal arts colleges and universities catering to a younger clientele, studying a wider variety of subjects.

Worse yet, political pressures from the existing educational establishment add to the hurdles facing any fundamentally new academic institutions that do not take on the costly ways of operating that the old ones use, including tenure for professors and adolescent activities and lifestyles for the students.

I have no idea what the quality of education is at the University of Phoenix — and it is none of my business. It is the business of the university’s 53,000 students and whatever new students it may get wherever it is allowed to compete with conventional non-profit colleges and universities. It is the business of employers who are thinking of hiring University of Phoenix graduates and it is the business of postgraduate institutions who need to judge their qualifications for admissions.

Much of the enormous costliness and irresponsible self-indulgence of the academic world comes from the fact that it has neither accountability nor competition. It has little or no incentive to do things efficiently and every incentive to appease every campus constituency by giving them their own turf, at the expense of the taxpayers, donors and tuition-paying parents.

Accountability is so remote in academia that conventional colleges and universities need all the competition they can get. The academic establishment’s fear and resentment of the University of Phoenix is a sign of how much some real competition is needed. But such competition may be stifled by arcane laws that serve to protect the academic dinosaurs.

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Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

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