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2-Year For-Profits vs. Community Colleges: The U.S. Graduation Race’s Unlikely Victor

Call it selective stick-to-itiveness, or a puzzling paradox of the Hare defeating the Tortoise. The mega-data is now in: Students enrolled in our nation’s two-year for-profit private schools make it to the finish line – graduation day – in greater numbers than those enrolled in public community colleges.

Specifically, 62 percent of two-year for-profit students completed a credential – compared to less than 40 percent of community college students.

Alas, the “public versus private” tables are turned when we look at students who started at four-year private for-profit institutions: Only 33.5 percent finish first at their starting institution — compared to 50.6 percent of students who started at other four-year institutions.

It’s the modern-day Aesop’s Fable: The Four-Year Pupil and the Two-Year Pupil, and The Community College Pupil and the For-Profit Pupil.

These LEGO-like stacks tell part of the story that took six years of research to unfold:

 

Six-Year Outcomes by Starting Institution Type

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The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s second annual report on national college completions rates is a statistical tome resulting from tracking a bunch of first-time degree-seekers who started their postsecondary education in fall 2007, to spring 2013. They’ve crunched six-year outcomes in every which way: Gender, completion across state lines, dual-enrollment (high school students who get a head start in college), full-time versus part-time enrollment, and traditional versus non-traditional age (by federal standards, over 24 is “non-traditional”)

Now, the step is asking the inevitable question:

Why?

Namely, why do students at 2-year for-profits have better completion rates … and why do students at 4-year for-profits tend to have worse completion rates than those at 4-year public institutions?

Community colleges have often been glorified as budget-friendly alternatives to for-profit schools, not to mention rational stepping stones for students who will eventually transfer to a “small fish, bigger pond” four-year public universities. By contrast, dissenters have often railed at their favorite whipping boy: Private for-profit schools. Too expensive, too much advertising, too dubious in quality, they naysay.

But one thing is for sure: The NSCRC’s facts back up the 2-year for-profit schools as a legit place to start, and finish, your credential. There are a couple reasons why this may be:

Firstly, the longer it takes to complete a credential, the Game of LIFE makes graduation less likely. Whether you’ve added a fifth orange people peg to your car or run out of $5,000 denominations to fund your last year of college, Murphy’s Law holds strong when you take too long.

Secondly, as more and more non-traditional age students enroll into higher education, scheduling flexibility becomes a premium. While for-profit private schools boast a wide selection of online course offerings, community colleges (despite slowly adopting hybrid and online formats) by and large still require in-class attendance and for students to spend extra on babysitters, daycare, and gasoline.

Whatever the reason, the community college model is being taken to task. Take California, for instance: In its recent column, the LA Times sternly rebukes community colleges’ measly 2012-era graduation rates: “This happens year after year after year, and it’s not only the dropouts who are harmed. When students fail to complete their degrees, taxpayers also lose.”

Adhering to the notion that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it also means that the local and subsidies – which make community colleges so famously affordable – are essentially given in vain.

So when for-profit schools come out ahead in completion rates, taxpayers also win.

Seeing the big picture

Surely, the National Clearing House Research Center’s data is an improvement over the traditional measures of graduation rates (which tend to look at completion at one institution only). The older tracking model is like a federal wildlife agency putting a GPS collar on a wolf population to measure how they fare in while crossing the Cascades into other states … only to program the tags or collars to stop working once the wolves leave the narrow parameters of their initial environment.

But it’s still important to take the otherwise discouraging statistic (“only” 56 percent complete college, many media outlets report grimly) with a grain of salt.

As any financial advisor or stock investor will tell you, six years isn’t much of a window to make judgments on how well a product – be it a T-Bond or higher education – is faring. To truly get a feel for how graduation completion rates have improved (or not), we must look back further … much further.

Like the 1940s, for instance:

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But wait! How much do completion rates even matter?

Just as standardized test scores did for high schools and middle schools, college completion rates are fast becoming a controversial sort of reform carrot for post-secondary reform.

Not all faculty members are pleased about this incentivization approach, either.

“We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” Karen Arnold, an associate professor Boston College told the Atlantic. Another professor at Western Connecticut State University called it the “McDonaldization” of higher education.

Ouch!

Let’s also not forgot the stumbling blocks that the U.S. Department of Education experienced after the Student Right to Know Act2 (which aims to measure school completion) was passed in 1990. The math of graduation rates is not a simple matter of counting heads. It’s also a matter of weaving in the major societal shifts … such as the transition towards flexibility, especially for what the federal government calls “non-traditional” students.

As an American Council on Education article points out: “… in the mid-1980s (sic) traditional students were a much larger share of enrollments. But the rapid increase in nontraditional enrollments means that the current 25-year old definition excludes a huge number of students.”

The cookie-cutter approach excludes 61 percent of students at four-year schools and 67 percent at two-year institutions, to be exact.

Now we have a much more nuanced idea of the academic decisions that diverse types of students make in six years. As the Bee-Keeper and the Bees fable illustrates, “Things are not always what they seem”. Surely, this is one moral of the many truths revealed in the six-year data.

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