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October 08, 2010 1:24 PM Graduation Rates: Community Colleges vs. For-Profits

By Daniel Luzer

Because community colleges and for-profit schools tend to enroll more or less the same populations, they’re often in competition- for students, for dollars, and for attention. This fact is an important one to proponents of for-profit schools who can point out, quite legitimately, that community colleges simply don’t have the resources to enroll and educate all the underprepared, first-generation college students eager for education.

And community colleges don’t do a good job educating students. Despite the high price, for-profit schools have better outcomes, right? As Neal McCluskey over at the Cato Institute writes:

Only around 22 percent of public, two-year college students graduate within three years, versus roughly 49 percent of private, not-for-profit attendees and about 59 percent of private, for-profit students.

As Ben Miller of Education Sector points out, however, these figures are only technically correct and aren’t really comparable:

Community colleges produced the vast majority of their graduates in programs of at least two years and less than four years-most likely associate degrees. They also had a substantial number of students who transferred out.

Miller runs an analysis comparing the two sectors by true completion rates, students who completed the programs in which they actually enrolled. It turns out that “if we take all transfers, still enrolled students, and programs of less-than two years out of the numerators and denominators” the graduation rate is about 21 percent for community colleges and 19 percent for for-profit schools.

So the graduation rate is about the same. Now, granted, that graduation rate is actually really bad, but this whole discussion about for-profits being “three times more effective” appears to just reflect an exercise in statistical manipulation.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer