Monday, February 11, 2013

U. of Phoenix rebrands in face of plummeting enrollment and stock price

“I am a Phoenix” is no more. The once-ubiquitous TV commercials touting student and faculty pride in the University of Phoenix have been replaced by a new ad campaign that its marketers hope will “project a hopeful, positive message for America.” It’s also designed to lay the ground for what one university executive called “a massive repositioning” of the institution.

The new ad push is hardly surprising. As The Chronicle reported this week, Phoenix and just about every other major for-profit college are scrambling to reverse more than a year and a half of enrollment declines.

Phoenix’s new “Let’s Get to Work” campaign, showcased here on the university’s YouTube feed, reflects market research that found that many Phoenix students don’t enroll for a degree per se. “They come,” said Barry Feierstein, the university’s chief operating officer, “for what the degree will do for them.”

The University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest for-profit university, is closing 115 of its brick-and-mortar locations, including 25 main campuses and 90 smaller satellite learning centers. The closings will affect some 13,000 students, about 4 percent of its student body of 328,000.

It is also laying off about 800 employees out of a staff of 17,000, according to Mark Brenner, senior vice president for communications at the Apollo Group, which owns the university and its stock price has lost nearly two-thirds of its market value in the past year.

The “hopeful, positive” part of the campaign began in September with a minute-long commercial narrated by Phylicia Rashad, whom many may remember for her portrayal of a successful working mother on The Cosby Show, a TV sitcom. Phoenix has been shifting its focus back to working adult students, who are more likely to succeed, after years of high-flying growth built on recruiting students who fared poorly in traditional colleges and left with high debts and no degrees.

Ms. Rashad’s script makes no mention of the university (its name comes on screen at the end) but does remind viewers that, “for every one of those 3.7 million unfilled jobs, there’s someone amazing out there who deserves a chance to show the world what they’re capable of.”

Additional ads made their debut in January, including one, dubbed “Lucky Socks,” that highlights the career connections students can forge through the university’s alumni network. Phoenix has bought 63,000 pairs of the bright-red University of Phoenix socks that appear on characters in the ad to send to alumni leaders. A new ad focused on the university’s corporate partnerships made its debut this Sunday, during the Grammy Awards broadcast, and another is scheduled to air during the Academy Awards, at the end of the month.

The university has not said what it’s spending on the campaign but told investment analysts last month that its overall spending on advertising would increase by 15 percent in the next quarter. The university’s parent company, the Apollo Group, spent more than $665-million annually on marketing in the 2012 fiscal year, a sum that accounted for about 15 percent of its revenues.

The initial ad’s soundtrack might strike some listeners as an interesting choice. It’s a slow, solo-piano version of the music for “Amazing Grace,” presumably chosen to complement the narrator’s description of those “amazing” students and not for its history as a hymn about redemption.


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