The for-profit college industry has long list of failings. The schools are expensive. They educate about a tenth of all undergraduates, but account for almost half of all student loan defaults. Their alums are more likely to end up unemployed than peers who attend nonprofit schools and, if they find a job, may well earn less.
But for all its warts, the for-profit sector does get a few things right. Chief among them: their graduation rates for two-year programs. About 60 percent of students at for-profit schools earn their associate's degree or professional certificate within three years of starting their education. At community colleges, just about one fifth of attendees graduate on time. The graph below shows the results for the entering classes of 2000 and 2007, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
America's dreadful graduation rates are one of the most dire issues facing its higher education system. The dropout problem is particularly serious among two-year students, who tend to be the least academically prepared and most financially strapped. And so the for-profit sector's relative success with them shouldn't be taken lightly.*
That said, the statistics need a few qualifications. First: the completion rate at community colleges might not be as bad as it seems. Because the government only includes first-time, full-time students towards a school's graduation tally, transfer students are treated as dropouts. That includes students who leave their community college to seek a bachelor's degree. If those transfers are included, public two-year schools have a success rate closer to 40 percent, according to the American Association Community Colleges. But even if you assume those calculations are correct, that only narrows the gap to about 20 percent.