University Of Phoenix’s Risk-Free Trial Might Not Cost You, But Is It An Accurate Taste Of College?

From diet pills to dating websites, it’s not hard to find someone offering a “risk-free” trial membership, and thanks to the University of Phoenix, that “try before you buy” model now applies to college courses. But while one might admire the idea of giving potential students a taste of the school before committing to an expensive education at the for-profit online university, consumer advocates are concerned about the program’s benefits.

University of Phoenix’s latest ads now tout a three-week, risk-free trial period that purports to let prospective students test out college before diving into the pricey endeavor that would likely involve student loans.

The commercial begins with a woman sitting in a darkened room deeply contemplating the decision to return to college while her infant sleeps nearby. Ultimately, she simply clicks a button and begins her three-week journey at U. of Phoenix (after a short celebration dance).

While the commercial may be enough to convince those students on the fence about college to take the leap, it is lacking in the important details about how the program actually works or what students can expect to learn during their brief test run.

“It’s very easy for schools to put on a good show for the first seven to 14 days of class,” Robyn Smith, an attorney working with the National Consumer Law Center, warns about free-trial programs. “It’s really important for students to investigate these programs.”

Not The Traditional Risk-Free Trial?

Officials with the University of Phoenix claim that the company’s Risk-Free Period Program isn’t like the typical high-cost free trials consumers might see on late-night television.

“Our founding mission was to democratize higher education,” Mark Brenner, senior vice president of external affairs for University of Phoenix, tells Consumerist. “We want people to have access and to make sure college is the right fit for them.”

The Risk-Free Period Program gives prospective students three weeks to try out the university experience by getting to know the online classroom environment, test their time-management skills and explore the school’s resources.

“See if University of Phoenix is right for you — all before you spend a dime — so you can commit to your education with confidence,” the school’s website promises.

Students are eligible for the trial period if they haven’t previously been admitted to the University of Phoenix, have received fewer than 24 college course credits in the past and plan to study one of these degree programs.

One big concern about free-trials in general is that consumers are often automatically opted into full memberships at the end of the trial, and that it can be difficult to avoid this fate.

But Brenner says that prospective University of Phoenix students are not automatically enrolled in the school unless they shouldn’t worry about incurring costs if they choose not to proceed with the school after three weeks because of the opt-in model used in the trial.

“If a student wants to continue they must opt-in during week four,” he explains.

Ryan Rauzon, a spokesman for the company, tells Consumerist that the program’s default is to opt out, meaning that if a student decided at the end of week three that they don’t want to continue with the school they simply don’t log into their account or class again.

School weeks at University of Phoenix begin on Tuesdays, so if a student does decide to continue with their education at the school they simply post or engage in a class beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning.

We have not had the chance to actually try the program so we can’t vouch for the supposed ease of avoiding the opt-in.

Maybe It’s Not That Easy

While using an opt-in model for the program might ease some minds regarding continued financial obligations or confusing timelines, the information students must provide before entering the trial may be just as valuable to the school as credit card information is to product marketers.

Although students are only conditionally admitted under the trial period until they opt-in during week four of classes, they must sign an enrollment agreement [PDF] before beginning the introductory class.

“The enrollment agreement outlines the degree program requirements as well as the risk-free period policies,” Rauzon tells Consumerist. “The agreement also confirms that a student’s enrollment advisor has reviewed with the student the terms of the risk-free period. The agreement outlines critical information to ensure students understand what is required in their degree program.”

Additionally, if a student intends to finance their degree program with federal student aid, all of their financial aid application materials must be submitted prior to the start of the Risk-Free Period Program.

However, Rauzon says financial aid is not processed during the trial period.

If a student does decide to continue with the program, they will be retroactively charged for the first three weeks of the six-week introductory course.

Still, Smith, the attorney with the National Consumer Law Center tells Consumerist, that despite the school’s promise that students aren’t obligated after week three if they choose not to continue at the school, signing any kind of agreement or note could have detrimental consequences.

“If they’re signing any kind of agreement, they could be obligating themselves to enrollment before that three weeks is done,” she says.

Smith suggests students closely read any agreement or documents before signing them.

Is It A True College Experience?

Image courtesy of Adam Fagen

Another aspect of University of Phoenix’s Risk-Free Period Program that proves troublesome for consumer advocates is the course in which students attend during the three weeks.

Students enrolled in the risk-free trial are placed in one of two introductory-level credit-bearing courses: GEN/127 University Studies for Success or GEN/201 Foundations for University Success.

The classes, which students are required to take during their first sequence at the school, aim to give students an idea of what learning at the University of Phoenix entails.

“What we heard from students during our previous orientation program was that why wanted to be in class, to try it before ether buy it,” Brenner says. “Students have said that the trial was a helpful way to experience the classroom and understand the amount of time it’s going to take.”

While a general course may introduce students to the way the University of Phoenix works, Smith questions its value in accurately showing students what the college experience is like if it doesn’t address their chosen course of study.

“That’s a problem,” she says. “They aren’t getting a view of the program they are enrolling in, what the program is going to be like or what their teachers are going to be like.”

Smith says that for the free trial to truly prepare students for the commitment of higher education, the course offered should be substantial, something students can get use out of.

“Otherwise, it’s easy for University of Phoenix or another school to put together a great introductory program and make it look great,” she says. “But later in their degree courses student might discover it’s not what they really wanted.”

Could There Be An Even Less Risky Option?

Image courtesy of Brad Clinesmith

While Phoenix’s Risk-Free Period Program may be of interest to some prospective students, Smith says there could be other ways for students to determine if a school is right for them.

“Students can sit in on a class they would take to see if it’s something they like,” she says. “Talk to students that are in the program, see if the professors are knowledgable and well prepared.”

While Phoenix’s reputation is largely based in online education, it does operate a number of campuses around the country. Rauzon says prospective students are always welcome to visit one of these local campuses to observe a class or discuss enrollment with advisors prior to attending courses.

While the University of Phoenix has largely avoided some of the issues that have plagued the for-profit industry lately, Smith says students can never be too careful when it comes to investing thousands of dollars on their education.

She suggests students looking to apply for any kind of higher education program should do more than just get a taste of the classroom environment.

Students should investigate graduation rates, placement rates and see whether the campus or online classroom provide the necessary equipment and resources to be successful in their chosen programs.

“I think it’s really important for students to be assertive and ask a lot of questions,” she says. “Talk to employers about if they hire students from these schools. It’s really important to be critical, to take these things seriously and not let the school just talk you into enrolling.”