Changing the Perception of For-Profit Education Through Powerful Advertising

The Power of Emotion

About a month ago, The University of Phoenix released a powerful commercial promoting women in IT that encouraged women to “Rise” and consider enrolling in their bachelor’s of information technology program (University of Phoenix, 2017).  The commercial is gaining traction with nearly 7 million views on YouTube to-date.  The sixty-second commercial prominently featured the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster with the slogan “We Can Do It” throughout the ad as a source of inspiration for the commercial’s protagonist, a single mother who has been laid off due to factory automation (Oster, 2017).  A close friend of mine mentioned that she cries everytime she sees the commercial, because the messaging of the commercial strikes such an emotional chord.  Comments for the video on YouTube suggest the same.

On the Other Hand…

However, there are times when the sentiment toward for-profit institutions of higher education is not as favorable.  In a blog post with the provocative title “Is Higher Education a Bubble/Fraud/Conspiracy/Ponzi Scheme, Part 2” written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carey (2011) among various points of discussion mentions that “a lot of institutions are out there making money selling degrees that purport to signal certain valuable qualities but really don’t” (p. 1).  For-profit institutions have been under governmental scrutiny for concerns about completion rates, deceptive advertising and job placement (Carey, 2011; Oster, 2017).  The University of Phoenix is accredited by a reputable accreditor, The Higher Learning Commission which also accredits institutions such as the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The University of Phoenix was literally “put on notice”, but was ultimately removed from notice after the Higher Learning Commission found the university resolved issues that threatened its accreditation (Higher Learning Commission, 2015).

Stories of Success

While there exists a certain level a skepticism toward for-profit institutions, not all outcomes are bad.  Not all institutions of higher education, whether they are non-profit or for-profit, are created equally.  There is a duality as it relates to successful outcomes for college graduates during and after the recruitment process.  Universities must be honest about the job placement and degree requirements during the recruitment and prospect phase.  Prospective students and their families must also do their due diligence when researching the institutions that meet their needs (financial, curriculum, work/life balance, etc.).

My brother received an MBA in healthcare management from the University of Phoenix five years ago.  He informed me that the degree has opened doors both professionally and financially.  He was already working in the healthcare profession and looked at programs at local brick-and-mortar institutions as well as their online outfits.  Overall, for him, the University of Phoenix was a better fit as a full-time working husband and father of two young children.  He also says that his pay jumped $25K-$30K as a result of his degree.


While a healthy dose of skepticism and scrutiny is absolutely warranted for all universities, it will be interesting to see if the University of Phoenix can sway positive public opinion in its favor.  They are already off to a start with the “We Can Do It” campaign.  After I watched the commercial directly on the University of Phoenix website, they connected across media by showing the ad later that evening while I was browsing another website. Also, from the university’s main website, a link to the video is featured at the very top of the page. Social media sites which can be found on the university homepage all either connect back to the ad or show viewers how to contact or apply to the institution.

Carey, K. (2011, May 16). Is Higher Education a Bubble/Fraud/Conspiracy/Ponzi Scheme, Part 2. [Web log post]. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Higher Learning Commission. (2015, June 25). Public disclosure notice on University of Phoenix. Retrived from

Oster, E. (2017, May 23). University of Phoenix taps WWII icon Rosie the Riveter to inspire working moms: 180LA pays homage in ‘We Can Do IT’. AdWeek. Retrieved from

University of Phoenix. (2017, May 22). We Can Do IT (:60) – University of Phoenix [Video file]. Retrieved from

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4 Responses to Changing the Perception of For-Profit Education Through Powerful Advertising

  1. Rachel DeLago says:

    Hi Shira,
    Very interesting post. As I was reading, I found myself asking myself “I wonder what the MCM students’ motivations are for this program. Some are attempting to earn more money, open more doors, but for me, I can relate to the ads from the University of Phoenix. I probably will not earn more money by completing my degree. I don’t plan to switch careers, so open doors don’t mean much (although if I’m caught in a situation where I need it, I’ll definitely be knocking at those doors!) I am earning my degree for myself and to use as an example for my kids.

    I am fortunate that my company pays for a portion of the program. I am more than honored to have been accepted and to be attending the best university in the country. But for those who aren’t as fortunate, but still want the opportunity to better themselves but might be limited on budget, etc., it’s nice to see there are options. However, I do agree that in order to provide those options, standards must be set. A degree should not just be something you earn, but something you work for and the coursework should not be such that anyone can earn a degree.

    Great post!

    • Shira says:

      Thanks Rachel!

      I completely agree. Diploma mills are certainly a problem in society. Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of examples of people who have received degrees from online for-profit institutions and then report that they have difficulty finding a job and ultimately feel like the experience was a complete waste of time. That is so unfortunate. I admire that you are receiving your degree for personal fulfillment and as an example to your children. Best of luck during your journey through the MCM program! It was been a great one for me.


  2. Brett says:

    Hi Shira,

    I thought this was a very thought-provoking post. I personally believe that any school that a) gives their students a quality education and b) accommodates a student’s schedule and financial concerns is worth considering. However, I do think that subconsciously (or not) most people look down upon “for-profit” education because of its ultimate business-like design to be profitable.

    My cousin attended a “for-profit” college for graphic design. During his last semester, the school shut down due to mismanagement and he was not granted a degree. However, he did learn a lot and makes decent money in graphic design. Despite this, he is paid below his talent since jobs are being offered to employees who finished their undergraduate degree. Even though he received a quality education, its situations like these that promote distrust around “for-profit” institutions.

    Its a very interesting debate and I am curious to see this evolves. Great post!


    • Shira says:

      Thanks Brett!

      I am so sorry to hear about your cousin’s experience. I wonder if he would be able to transfer any of the classes he took toward a degree at another institution. It would be such a shame to be a total loss. I feel like I remember hearing that happened to some students going to ITT Tech. I think if students turn to for profit institutions, they should definitely check out their accreditation and confirm that the accrediting body is reputable.