Founded in 1976, the university’s original intention was to offer an alternative to the conventional university system by providing non-conventional students an opportunity to complete or attain an advanced degree. While this approach to post-secondary education may be obvious and common now, it was revolutionary just 40 years ago. UPX (once known as UoP) was also a pioneer in offering online classes, starting in earnest in the early 1990s. The school does have physical campus locations in most states, including satellite centers in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Chile, Canada and the Netherlands. But today the bread and butter for the school, and for its shareholders (NASDAQ: APOL), is its online curriculum and campus, offering continuing adult education, associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
Regardless of which side of the elbow-patched-jacket debate one might be on (affected? classic?), the emergence of the online university is either one of higher learning’s greatest democratizing forces or a move toward devalued culture and decreased expectations. A physical campus takes decades to build and becomes part of the undeniable character of a university. But a website can be built in a year and be relatively the same as any other school’s online campus. In this regard, UPX website is no exception.
The UPX site, however, looks more professional than a range of its peers. At first glance, Phoenix.edu looks as reputable as the sites for the University of Florida, the University of Oregon or the University of California-Berkeley . And one could argue the UPX site looks even more reputable than Harvard’s or Yale’s (the latter of which looks as if the school opted for its web-hosting provider’s most basic site-builder package).
All the areas of interest and inquiry one might expect to find on a university website are here, including information on degree programs, admissions, financial aid and “satisfied customer” testimonials. In simple design, UXP wins the initial battle to come across as reputable not because it does an exceptional job but simply because it looks comparable to its counterparts.
This last point is important from UPX’s standpoint. If the school’s website stands out too much then the school might be perceived as different. And UPX’s goal is not to position itself as better than other universities; it is to show that its product, an education, is in no way different from those offered at any of these other, more renowned, bricks-and-mortar schools. So, you see, the only difference is that UPX is online and more convenient.
This sales pitch—the sales pitch—is at the core of the UPX “business” model. A private, shareholder-controlled university, the school has a reputation for its hyper-aggressive marketing. Indeed, a university with no physical campus faces few challenges regarding housing, transportation, etc., and so can expand at will. But not many universities have a dedicated Consumer Affairs complaint page, and if they do it’s likely not as long as UPX’s. (Harvard has all of one entry.)
In a fundamental way, universities and colleges represent the simplest, most concise examples of exactly what a “brand” is and how brand value is created. The strategic value of a university and college brand is especially reliant on, and vulnerable to, the give-and-take relationship between the brand owner (the school) and the consumer (potential students and/or employers of alumni).
As with many brands, this valuation relationship is self-reinforcing: Yale’s reputation for high education attracts the best and the brightest, which in turn reinforces Yale’s brand, which in turn attracts the best and the brightest and so on and so forth. But it is important to remember that a good portion of a school’s brand value is a result of the perceived brand of that school by many who will never go there. A school cannot just hire the best professors and then announce that it is a legitimate competitor to Yale; it must convince people, rightfully or not, that it is indeed a competitor of Yale. This requirement of building up a brand is another reason schools are excellent models of brand building through investment over a long period of time, which ultimately results in the steady increase of brand value and a return on that expanding brand value.