How Your Student Debt Helped Fund the Super Bowl

The New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, but the real winner on Sunday may have gone unnoticed amid the spectacle -- even though their name is displayed in large, red letters on the side of the Glendale, Ariz., stadium that hosted the game. The University of Phoenix bought the Glendale stadium's naming-rights -- making it "University of Phoenix Stadium" -- for $154 million in 2006. They largely paid for the advertising with student loan debt and your taxpayer dollars.

With more than 112 campuses worldwide conferring degrees in over 100 on and offline programs, the University of Phoenix (UoP) is a behemoth in the world of for-profit higher education. They are also known for how much of their revenue comes from federal student loans:

Where did this financial windfall come from? 

According to Student Debt Crisis, the University of Phoenix netted an average of $12,319 per student in tuition in 2012, but they spent a mere $1,655 per student on instruction -- less than 14 percent of each student’s total tuition and fees. This disparity was even worse in 2010, when UoP paid a lowly $900 per enrolled student.

It would seem that their lack of investment in their students impacts them, too, since the business boasts a higher loan default rate than its graduation rate. To put those numbers in perspective: 

  • Each year, the number of students who drop out of University of Phoenix’s programs could fill more than five Super Bowl XLIX stadiums. 
  • Students who defaulted on their loans between 2009 and 2011 after leaving UoP could fill more than two Super Bowl XLIX stadiums. 
  • During the 2015 Super Bowl game alone -- four hours of play and commercials -- student debt for UoP graduates will increase by $164,000.

(h/t Adjunct Actions

On top of immense profits, Phoenix also benefits directly from the pockets of American taxpayers by enlisting returning veterans who pay tuition with GI Bill assistance. The corporation has seen record earnings from US veterans, making approximately $1 billion to-date. UoP’s San Diego campus in particular has scored big, bringing in $95 million in GI Bill funds -- more than any other physical campus in the nation and more than the entire University of California and UC extension program system combined. 

This would be okay if veterans were actually benefiting from the education received, but, sadly, they aren’t. 

“Basically, I wasted my GI Bill benefits - just like a lot of other veterans I talk to,” former Marine Corps corporal Moses Maddox told the Los Angeles Times back in 2012, after learning that the state university he wanted to attend wouldn’t accept any of the course credits he’d earned through UoP. 

Maddox’s story isn’t uncommon or limited to the University of Phoenix either. Eight of the 10 colleges that collect the most money from the heftier, post-9/11 GI Bill are for-profit programs. The problem is especially dire in California, where Center for Investigative Reporting research found that almost two of every three GI Bill dollars goes into for-profit higher education coffers.  

ATTN: crunched some numbers, and University of Phoenix could have housed over 900 homeless veterans for a year in Colorado instead of spending money on the Super Bowl Stadium. They could also pay for the City of Los Angeles’ ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness by 2016 more than twice over. 

These figures should make you wonder why University of Phoenix is still in business, and indeed, the Obama administration has wrestled with this same question.

In Oct. 2014, the US Dept. of Education attempted to crackdown on the unscrupulous practices of some for-profit higher education companies with the advent of gainful employment regulations. These rules attempt to monitor and control the debt-to-income ratios of higher education graduates, hoping, through legislation, to ensure that students don’t incur more debt than they’ll be able to afford by tracking job prospects, post-graduation income levels, and other statistics for their specific institution.

Predictably, the for-profit education sector was quick to answer in-kind with a lawsuit only a week later, resulting in court delays that will likely lead to the dismissal of the new rules similar to previous gainful employment efforts. 

Corporations like University of Phoenix also do a brisk business in political and corporate alliances. Several American policymakers -- most notably the former head of the DoE Margaret Spellings -- have been closely affiliated with UoP and its parent company, Apollo Group. (Spellings previously sat on the Apollo Group Board of Directors.) Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi has ties to Phoenix, via a close friendship with the company’s founder John Sperling, documented in Suzanne Mettler’s “Degrees of Inequality.” 

No surprise then when the Education Department staged what some have called a Wall Street “bank-style bailout” of for-profit Corinthian Colleges after they were accused of falsifying job placement data to prospective students and other unfair business practices. 

Can we expect better from the DoE in policing University of Phoenix’s unrestrained fleecing of students and taxpayers? 

Probably not. But especially when unregulated for-profit education excesses are hidden in plain sight on national TV, we should at least stand up and demand that they made students a priority rather than stadiums. Amid the NFL’s total avoidance of taxes and the exceptional lack of cost-benefits for the city that hosts the annual festivities, there’s already plenty of financial subterfuge underpinning Super Bowl Sunday. Enough that it would be easy to miss the massive naming-rights deal between this year’s stadium and a higher education corporation like University of Phoenix.