Who Graduates At-Risk Students?

Analysis of federal data by career college foundation suggests for-profit institutions' success in getting underprepared students their degrees.

June 18, 2009

ORLANDO -- The increasing push by federal and state governments alike to tie financial support for colleges to their success in retaining and graduating students concerns officials at institutions with large numbers of students who are from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their families to go to college. It's not that they mind being held accountable, say officials at open-access four-year public universities, community colleges, and for-profit institutions; they just don't want to be punished for admitting and trying to educate those who have historically had the least access to higher education and who enter college with the most risk factors that tend to drag students down.

After all, the easiest way to push up a college's graduation rate is to raise the bar at the point of entry, which works against the equivalent desire to ensure that students of all types have access to a legitimate higher education.

A study previewed this week at the annual meeting of the Career College Association here seeks to make the case that any assessment of colleges' success in getting students to the finish line must take into account the students' attributes when they start. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the study, which was financed by the Imagine America Foundation, which works on behalf of for-profit colleges, also asserts that commercial career colleges have more success graduating high-risk students than do other types of institutions.

The study is still preliminary, and a final version won't be released until later this summer. But the data were previewed during a session at the Career College Association meeting by Watson Scott Swail of the Educational Policy Institute, the lead researcher, and Nancy Broff, a lawyer for Dickstein Shapiro and former general counsel of the career college group.

Mining statistics from two federal student databases, Swail shows that for-profit colleges enroll disproportionate numbers of students from backgrounds that tend to put students at academic risk. Ticking through a series of risk factors -- whether students are eligible for federal Pell Grants for needy students, members of minority groups, the education levels of students' parents, etc. -- the study finds that career college students are likeliest, in most cases, to have higher proportions of students in at-risk categories. While 35 percent of all first-time students in fall 2003 were eligible for Pell Grants, 66 percent of four-year students and 72 percent of two-year students at career colleges were, compared to 27 percent at four-year public institutions, 28 percent at four-year private, and 26 percent of students at two-year public colleges.

Similarly, 53 percent of four-year students at career colleges were financially independent of their parents, compared to 7 percent at four-year public and 37 percent at two-year public colleges.

And as seen in the table below, significantly larger proportions of students at for-profit colleges were both from low-income backgrounds and first-generation college students:

First-Generation and Low-Income Status for Freshmen by Sector, 2003

  Low-income and first generation Low income only First generation
Total 25% 6% 38% 32%
4-year public 12 5 33 50
4-year private nonprofit 11 6 28 55
4-year for-profit 44 9 35 12
2-year public 26 6 46 23
2-year private 45 8 31 16
2-year for-profit 50 8 33 9

"Students at career colleges are, for better or worse, more challenged to access higher education and succeed in higher education" because of their backgrounds, the study asserts.

Given that reality, one might expect students at for-profit colleges to fare less well than their peers at other types of institutions, and by at least one measure they do, the study acknowledges: Smaller proportions of full-time and part-time freshmen in four-year programs at career colleges return the following fall than at private nonprofit and public colleges, although career colleges retain students in two-year programs at better rates than do community colleges, according to the Imagine America study.

Over all, the graduation rates of for-profit colleges lag those of other four-year institutions, but run slightly ahead of two-year private and well ahead of two-year public colleges, as seen in the table below:

Graduation Rates of Undergraduate Students, 2006

  For-Profit Private nonprofit Public
4-year 48% 64% 53%
2-year 59 55 23
Less Than 2-year 66 73 69

But the picture looks very different when you examine students at institutions that serve significant numbers of low-income students, the study suggests.

At institutions where at least 75 percent of the students are eligible for Pell Grants, for instance, about 55 percent of career college students graduate, compared to 39 percent at four-year private and 31 percent at four-year public universities, and 45 percent of two-year private and 24 percent of two-year public colleges.

And when looking at graduation rates by race, career colleges fare better than public colleges and within reach of private nonprofit institutions, the study finds, as seen in the table below:

Graduation Rates of Undergraduate Students by Race and Sector, 2006

  White Black Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander
Total 50 41 48 57
4-year public 46 38 42 59
4-year private nonprofit 58 50 57 65
4-year for-profit 50 45 54 62
2-year public 31 23 30 38
2-year private nonprofit 69 59 63 69
2-year for-profit 62 54 63 75

Broff and Swail both said they believed that the study showed that for-profit institutions were doing a comparatively good job graduating the many at-risk students they enroll, even as it showed significant room for improvement.

Swail acknowledged in an interview that the study does not address the question of the quality of the degrees the diploma recipients received, but pointed out that "we don't have a strong grasp of the quality of the degrees from any institutions," given the dearth of comparative data about both short-term and long-term student outcomes.

The other missing element of the study, as one member of the audience at this week's presentation of the data noted, was any comparison of the price that students pay for the degree. While the study shows low-income students as more likely to earn degrees from for-profit colleges than from community colleges, they are almost always more expensive.

Broff said that Imagine America had chosen to focus on the graduation rates results in the current study, but would consider factoring in some assessment of "value" down the road.


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