Students who attend for-profit colleges have comparable and often higher retention and graduation rates than those at other institutions, according to the findings of a study released on Wednesday by the Imagine America Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides research and support for career colleges.
Advocates of for-profit colleges point to the study’s results as further evidence of the sector’s relevance within higher education.
"The education community cannot and should not ignore this sector of higher education, because it will play an increasingly important role in our nation’s ability to retool and prepare for increased competition from Asia and other areas," said Watson Scott Swail, president and chief executive of the Educational Policy Institute and the project’s principal investigator. The institute conducted the study for the foundation.
"The world is changing, and globalization requires us to explore other options for postsecondary education," he said.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, the study analyzes how career-colleges’ students fare, compared with those at public and nonprofit institutions, in terms of retention and degree attainment.
The study concluded that at the two-year level, career colleges have higher full-time and part-time retention rates than other sectors. For example, 72 percent of full-time students at two-year career colleges return the next academic year, compared with 57 percent of those at public two-year institutions and 68 percent at private, nonprofit two-year institutions.
For part-time students, retention levels were lower: At two-year career-colleges, the rate was 60 percent, compared with 42 percent at public institutions and 56 percent at private institutions.
At the less-than-two-year level, the retention rates of students at career colleges, public institutions, and private institutions are similar. Three quarters of full-time career-college students return the following year, as do 71 percent of part-time students.
The figure for full- and part-time students at public institutions at the less-than-two-year level is 77 and 69 percent, respectively. At private institutions, 79 percent of full-time students and 67 percent of part-time students returned the following year.
In regard to program-completion rates, the study found that at the two-year level, career colleges have the highest graduation rate—59 percent—compared with only 23 percent at public two-year institutions. Private two-year institutions graduate 55 percent of their students.
Robert L. Martin, president of the Imagine America Foundation, said the study confirms that career colleges are doing a good job at graduating trained workers. He is also heartened by the study’s evidence that career-college students are doing well academically, considering the obstacles many of them face. Many are single parents, and most work full time and attend school part time.
But not everyone was impressed with the study’s results.
"We have a very hard time squaring these numbers with the fact that for-profit students have the highest federal student-loan default rates, regrettably also coupled with shockingly high debt burdens that dwarf those of any sector," said David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
A report on the study, "Graduating At-Risk Students: A Cross-Sector Analysis," is available by request from the Imagine America Foundation.