Last week, the Washington Post's Fact Checker blog and the Department of Education went head-to-head over the earnings of for-profit graduates.†
The two institutions disagreed on a sound bite from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said that 72 percent of graduates from for-profit programs make less than high school graduates. Other organizations and media groups entered the fray as well.
Yet for all the talk of what graduates actually earn and what that statistic says about school quality and value, the voices of real, actual graduates were missing from the conversation.
This isn't uncommon. For-profit colleges don't fit into a neat little box - they belong to a diverse sector offering a wide range of certificates and degrees. This diversity poses a challenge for researchers and policymakers trying to understand the experiences of students at different types of schools.
We hoped to fill this gap by surveying graduates of for-profit colleges about their experiences (we also enjoy a challenge). One of the questions we explored was how these graduates felt about their schools and the value of their education.
Unsurprisingly, the attitudes these graduates hold toward their alma mater are as knotty and complex as the sector itself.
The vast majority of graduates are satisfied with the quality of their schools:
- 77 percent say they had caring instructors who know how to teach.
- 81 percent say their schools kept class sizes small.
- 82 percent say they had good opportunities to work with other students on teams.
At the same time, 77 percent say their schools were either "very" or "somewhat" expensive," and they're divided on whether their degrees were worth the cost:
- Fewer than 4 in 10 (37 percent) feel getting their degree was well worth it.
- A third (32 percent) says their degree "really wasn't worth it."
- 30 percent say it remains to be seen.
Alumni also feel their schools did not prepare them adequately for the job market:
- 37 percent say their schools did a fair or poor job teaching them knowledge and skills relevant in the workplace.
- Just 43 percent say their schools succeeded in giving students excellent help in finding jobs in their field.
- Most startling, 44 percent say their schools cared more about making money than educating students.
Good student outcome data is important, but data alone can't tell the whole story. When we listen to alumni themselves, the scrutiny surrounding the for-profit sector seems justified. But the story isn't that simple - many of these students think their schools did a good job on a number of important measures. The "72 percent" statistic may make for a provocative quote, but to truly meet the needs of students and the economy, higher education deserves more than just a sound bite.