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As nonprofit colleges grab more of the online education market amid the ongoing collapse of the for-profit sector, they also may be drawing more scrutiny.

Last month The New York Times and ProPublica came at the “behemoth” Liberty University with a critical look at student recruiting and outcomes for online programs at the nonprofit Christian institution.

And more recently, a prominent education technology consultant published critiques of completion rates and faculty-student interaction at Rio Salado College, the nation’s only majority online two-year institution (for now), which is part of Arizona’s Maricopa Community College system.

Phil Hill wrote about Rio Salado for e-Literate, a blog on ed tech he runs with Michael Feldstein, a fellow consultant and expert. After reviewing two courses from the college and researching its graduation rates and other metrics, Hill questioned why some recent reports from foundations, media outlets and think tanks had praised Rio Salado.

“One question we should ask is whether it is appropriate to hold up a school with some of the lowest student outcomes measures in the country as an exemplar,” Hill wrote. “Yes, Rio Salado has found a way to spend as little as possible on instruction and student support services, and yes, a lot of students transfer out, but that is not enough. We need greater evidence of student success if we are to use them as a case study for others to emulate.”

Rio Salado fired back with data-heavy written responses to Hill’s blog post. The exchange painted a more nuanced picture of the online community college’s track record, Hill acknowledged. But it also left unresolved tricky questions about what are reasonable (or acceptable) student success rates for relatively low-cost online offerings from two-year colleges.

“We want to keep being able to push ourselves,” Kate Smith, Rio Salado’s vice president of academic affairs, said in an interview this week. “We feel pretty good about where we are. But we certainly want to improve.”

Founded in 1978 to be a “college without walls” that could enroll underserved student populations in the burgeoning Maricopa County, which includes much of Phoenix and beyond, Rio Salado had a total student head count of nearly 53,000 last year. But its total enrollment in federal databases that define enrollments in certain narrow ways is 18,636.

That discrepancy is part of what muddies the waters on the college’s graduation and student retention rates. Just 1 percent of Rio Salado’s total student population is of the first-time, full-time and degree- or certificate-seeking variety, according to federal definitions.

As a result, Rio Salado’s four-year graduation rate of 5 percent in the most commonly used federal database, which Hill noted is the second lowest of any U.S. community college, doesn’t really mean much.

Last year more than three-quarters of Rio Salado’s students reported that they were not seeking to earn a degree or certificate from the college. Among likely non-credential seekers at Rio Salado, 23 percent were high school students taking dual-enrollment courses, while 33 percent said they enrolled at Rio Salado to earn transfer credits.

That means thousands of students who complete courses but don't stick around for an associate degree at Rio Salado before transferring to public, four-year universities in Arizona or elsewhere are counted as dropouts in federal databases.

“It’s a feeder school for Arizona State University,” said Sally Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “It’s a huge piece of what they do.”

Hill agreed but questioned whether the college portrays itself that way.

“They don’t push their market presence as transfer,” he said.

Yet with an in-state tuition rate of $86 per credit (compared to Liberty’s per-credit rate of $455 for part-time students), Rio Salado can be a good deal for students who are looking to pick up some transfer credits.

“We welcome all students who access our services -- whether they are certificate and degree seekers, adult re-entry students, transfer students, early college students, incarcerated re-entry students, work-force training students or life-long learners,” the college said in a written statement. “We understand the responsibility we have to help students navigate the barriers to higher education. Providing seamless transfer opportunities to other colleges and institutions through transfer and articulation agreements is one important component of the work that we do.”

A Fair Yardstick

So what metrics can be used to fairly judge student results at Rio Salado or other low-cost providers in the subdegree space?

The college offers rolling start dates, enrolling new students nearly every Monday. That further complicates the relevance of federal data, which often is based on a student census from the 45th day of the fall semester -- before many Rio Salado students have enrolled.

Furthermore, roughly 90 percent of Rio Salado’s students are enrolled part-time, and its average time to degree completion is more than five years.

As a result, officials at Rio Salado prefer keeping tabs with the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which is published by the American Association of Community Colleges. The data track students as they progress, pass credit-earning thresholds and transfer, giving a broader view of student retention and completion rates.

The college stacks up well in comparison with 210 other community colleges under the VFA.

For example, its three-year graduation rate is 13 percent, compared to 10 percent for peer institutions. And Rio Salado’s three-year graduation rate for credential-seeking students is 42 percent, according to the college’s analysis of VFA data, compared to 16 percent for peer institutions. Its first-term and two-year credit success rates (percentage of credit hours completed by a cohort of students) hover just above 70 percent, which are also in line with the broad peer group.

Are those numbers good enough?

Hill welcomed the college’s VFA data, calling it helpful. But he cautioned that the numbers reflect Rio Salado’s heavy focus on certificates.

“This is not a bad situation, per se, as long as students are gaining value in the workplace for these official certificates,” he said via email. “But certificates are not useful in terms of comparing apples to apples, especially when one school uses them liberally, as does Rio, and most other schools do not.”

Hill also noted that Rio Salado’s VFA completion rate for associate degree programs is a “troublesome” 7 percent.

Smith acknowledged that it’s hard to set appropriate expectations for completion rates.

“I personally struggle with the question,” she said. “What we really want is 100 percent of our credential-setting students to complete. Is that realistic?”

From Hill’s perspective, the collapse of the for-profits and the increasing online market share of nonprofits have upped the urgency for a more critical look at student success rates at Rio Salado and other large nonprofit providers.

“There haven’t been people digging into this,” he said. “All colleges need to answer equally for outcomes.”

‘Regular and Substantive’?

Hill’s critique of Rio Salado also raised questions about whether the college features adequate interactions between its faculty members and students.

The federal government requires “regular and substantive” interaction under decades-old regulations that were aimed at curbing abuses among correspondence courses of the snail-mail variety. Interpretations of those regulations have caused some headaches for competency-based programs, most notably the thriving and generally well-respected Western Governors University.

The two Rio Salado courses Hill accessed -- in first-year composition and early-childhood education -- appeared to include little interaction between students, he said. And Hill said interactions between faculty members and students were limited to grading of assignments and student-initiated messages.

Besides potential problems with federal regulations, Hill said, “Courses without real interaction can lead to very frustrating and nonproductive learning experiences for students.”

Rio Salado pushed back on Hill’s critique. Throughout the college’s courses, officials said, students interact directly with a single faculty member who is highly qualified in their discipline.

“For example, in an English class, interaction is largely in written form as instructors work with students to produce thesis statements, propose strategies to research their chosen topics, suggest revisions to essay drafts, etc.,” the college said. “In biology courses, faculty post weekly course announcements to alert students to content that is particularly challenging, and students in engineering courses have Skype sessions with their instructor to work on group projects.”

Smith said Rio Salado tries to be as high-touch as possible with its students. That can mean using predictive analytics to be strategic about where students need more supports. And she said the college needs to work closely with its 1,500 adjunct instructors to encourage them to support and interact with students.

“We are about continuous improvement,” she said, adding that “we don’t want to limit ourselves.”

Johnstone didn’t know whether Rio Salado provides adequate interaction with faculty members. But the former vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors said providing high-quality instruction online with centralized courseware and an affordable tuition rate is possible with strong leadership and smart faculty hiring.

“It’s feasible,” said Johnstone, particularly if the college helps instructors “understand what their role is, and it isn’t just grading papers.”

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