February 17, 2018

For-Profits and the Search for the Key to Better Retention | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

When it comes to student retention, we could all use more answers and less data.

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

Intrigued by a new study reporting that students at for-profit higher education institutions demonstrate higher retention and graduation rates, I wanted to learn more about this growing sector of the higher education industry. What could non-profit institutions like my own learn from for-profits that might help us to improve retention rates? Had the for-profits happened on innovative techniques that help their students persist to graduation?

A principal investigator of the study said "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." The study, titled “Graduating At-Risk Students: A Cross-Sector Analysis” is available only upon request. So I requested a copy.

Consider the source
Just because the report was funded by the Imagine America Foundation, a non-profit organization that states its mission as “[d]emonstrate the value of specialized career education and improve public understanding of the role of career colleges and schools,” we shouldn’t assume there’s bias in favor of the schools of its biggest sponsors, such as DeVry, Corinthian, Kaplan, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and other big names in for-profit higher education. The actual research was conducted by the Educational Policy Institute, another non-profit research tank funded by groups such as the Lumina and Gates foundations.

One might raise some questions about a report with a research objective to compare how well for-profit career colleges do compared to public and not-for-profit institutions on various measures of retention, rather than exploring and identifying strategies that all institutions can use to boost retention. But open-minded librarians should evaluate this study as they would any other.

What did they study and learn?
Regardless of the source, I found the report a good read for learning more about career college students. What exactly is a career college? The report never states that a career college is a for-profit institution. Career colleges primarily educate non-traditional students who are described as “workforce-oriented” rather than those who seek a traditional college experience. That’s a start, although you could make a case that just about any current college student is ultimately workforce oriented given the debt one incurs; if your institution offers business majors, I’d bet that school has the highest enrollment. 

But here’s where the typical University of Phoenix or Strayer University student differs from most college students: older; years out of high school; full-time worker; has children; first-generation college student; and less academically prepared. And more so than those in publics or non-profits, career college students are at risk of failure.

The analysis of retention and persistence to graduation used two datasets, IPEDS and the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. The report offers many charts comparing for-profits and non-profits across a variety of indicators, such as graduation rates by race/ethnicity, by income, and by selectivity. It appears that if you look at the data enough different ways, you’ll find areas where for-profits outperform non-profits in retention. For example, while four-year private institutions have higher graduation rates of white, non-Hispanic students, two-year career colleges have much better graduation rates for Hispanic students than two-year public institutions. But in the report’s conclusion, we learn that all those “how do they do it” questions “remain to be answered.” 

We’re warm and fuzzy—they’re not
Upon hearing that the for-profits do as good as or better than traditional non-profits on student retention, you’d expect that most people would seriously doubt the reliability of the study. After all, look where it’s coming from. But even if it was from some unbiased, independent source, the odds are that we’d all feel the same way.

Why? Because people stereotype organizations the same way they pre-judge other people. According to a study by a trio of business school professors we tend to believe that non-profits are warm, generous, and caring but not particularly effective. For-profits, on the other hand, are competent, deliver quality, and are financially sound.

Here’s what’s really interesting. The research finds that for-profits are making a greater effort to portray themselves as friendlier and more caring—as in special reports from independent think tanks concluding that for-profit career colleges are socially beneficial for low-income, minority, single parent, and other at-risk students who, unlike their rich, non-minority counterparts, can’t get a fair deal at a private or public non-profit institution. Just sayin.

What we need to know
Whatever we might think about for-profit higher education companies, there’s no denying that they are a force with which traditional colleges and universities must contend. While cash-crunched public institutions creaked and groaned as their overloaded enrollment systems rejected course-seeking students, for-profits opened up their sleek, smooth-running systems to the masses of students who just wanted to earn a college diploma.

When it comes to retention, the data suggests that the for-profits are holding their own against non-profits—depending on how you slice and dice the numbers. It probably wouldn’t be hard for non-profits to do some of their own comparisons that would likely show for-profit students having much higher federal student loan default rates.

Whether its non-profits or for-profits, when it comes to student retention we could all use more answers and less data. If the for-profits have some special insights, techniques and strategies for keeping students enrolled and persisting to graduation, then let’s hear more from them. If all they’ve got are strategically presented data, then all the think tank reports in the world may not make a difference.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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From the Bell Tower—For-Profits and the Search for the Key to Better Retention


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