These are the low times for higher learning.

Apollo Group (Nasdaq: APOL), the for-profit post-secondary educator behind the Web-based University of Phoenix, reported bland quarterly results last night. Consolidated net revenue climbed just 5% higher to $1.3 billion.

Unfortunately, the margin gain was solely the result of tuition hikes that have kicked in over the past year. Apollo's enrollment of roughly 438,100 students is 4% below where its rolls were a year ago.

The good news here is that Apollo managed to earn $1.63 a share from continuing operations before special items. Analysts figured that the educator would actually earn less than the $1.47 a share it posted during last year's fiscal first quarter.

Apollo's shares climbed on the better than expected profit, but a good chunk of those gains were simply the reversal of the stock's 5% drop on Monday after rival Strayer (Nasdaq: STRA) revealed a sharp drop in new enrollments.

This is the fear with this once-booming niche, isn't it? Ever since Apollo got called out for its aggressive marketing tactics in 2009 and the government issued a report on crummy student loan repayment rates, investors have been treading carefully.

It was a slam-dunk to offer degrees at a fraction of what brick-and-mortar institutions were commanding during the recession. The unemployed and unhappily employed made the most of the situation by retooling their skill sets.

The success of Apollo's University of Phoenix and American Public Education (Nasdaq: APEI) helped spawn a wave of Chinese e-learning IPOs led by New Oriental Education (NYSE: EDU), ATA (Nasdaq: ATAI), and China Distance Education (NYSE: DL). However, the demographics and federal regulations are much different in China than they are here in the U.S.

Closer to home, Apollo has some work to do. It's certainly doing a few things right, including paying down its debt and buying back shares.

"We began the important process of implementing several of the key strategic initiatives that we've been developing in recent quarters and that are designed to enhance the student experience, expand student protections and ensure that we enroll students who we believe have a greater likelihood to succeed in our programs," co-CEO Greg Cappelli noted in last night's earnings release.

In a nutshell, you can kiss the heady growth days goodbye. The silver lining in the report -- the better than expected margins -- may provide some comfort if Apollo's cost structure can make more with less, but this is ultimately a stock to steer clear from until enrollment truly bounces back.

Is Apollo a buy at these levels? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

New Oriental Education is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz remembers cheering on Rocky over Apollo -- but he can root for Apollo these days. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.