When Senator Tom Harkin (D – Iowa) released his report on for-profit universities in July 2012, he had very little to say that was positive about the schools. His complaints about the schools, which are almost all entirely online, were essentially threefold: First, students who attend these for-profit online schools are far more likely to borrow money to go to school. In fact, 96 percent of students at for-profit schools borrow money, primarily from the federal government, compared to 57 percent of students at traditional private universities, 48 percent of students at traditional public universities and 13 percent of students at community colleges. Second, students who attend for-profit schools end up paying much more for their degrees than students at traditional schools. The extra expenses may help to explain why so many of them borrow money to attend.
Harkin’s third complaint against these for-profit schools has to do with graduation rates. Despite paying more and borrowing more than students at other universities, for-profit universities have a rather dismal graduation rate. On average, these universities often graduate fewer than half their students. Associate degree programs have the highest drop-out rates; at the time of Harkin’s report, the senator’s inquiry found that 62.9 percent of associate degree candidates at for-profit universities dropped out before graduation. Bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs fared somewhat better; 54.3 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates and 38.4 percent of certificate candidates dropped out before their programs’ completion.
Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater
Be careful not to misread Senator Harkin’s report. The statistics above have to do with for-profit universities. Although nearly all of these for-profit schools are online schools, readers should not take that to mean that all online universities are bad schools.
Once traditional colleges and universities realized that there was a great deal of money to be had by organizing and offering online degree programs, a number of traditional schools started offering online degrees of their own. These traditional schools have much higher graduation rates. Among the top 10 online universities that have the best graduation rates, only one school, Full Sail University, is a for-profit university.
The Top 10
Which online universities have the highest graduation rates? Here is a list of the top 10 along with the percentage of students who graduate from their programs.
- Penn State: 87 percent
- University of Florida: 84 percent
- George Washington University: 81 percent
- Marist University: 80 percent
- Full Sail University: 80 percent
- University of Denver: 78 percent
- Northeastern University: 77 percent
- St. Joseph’s University: 76 percent
- Linfield College: 73 percent
Which of these online universities are considered to have the very best programs? Unsurprisingly, many of the online schools with the highest graduation rates are also ranked among the top online schools in the country. Here’s the same 10 schools again, this time listed according to the ranks they’ve been given when compared to 133 other online universities.
- #1 — University of Florida
- #2 — Linfield College
- #3 — Marist University
- #4 — Penn State
- #7 — George Washington University
- #11 — Northeastern University
- #18 — St. Joseph’s University
- #19 — University of Denver
- #74 — Full Sail University
As you can see from the list above, the one for-profit school with top 10 graduation rates, Full Sail University, has an overall ranking far below the other, traditional universities.
Despite online programs like Penn State and the University of Florida graduating a relatively high number of their degree programs, these online programs still have lower graduation rates than the traditional brick-and-mortar programs.
By way of comparison, consider the 10 traditional schools with the highest graduation rates:
- Haverford College: 91 percent
- Pomona College: 90 percent
- Swarthmore College: 90 percent
- Georgetown University: 90 percent
- Juilliard School: 90 percent
- University of Notre Dame: 90 percent
- College of the Holy Cross: 89 percent
- Columbia University: 89 percent
- Duke University: 89 percent
- United States Naval Academy: 89 percent
Several other universities, including Yale, also have 89 percent graduation rates. A number of elite universities, including Dartmouth and Villanova, have graduation rates of 88 percent. In other words, even outside schools in the top 10 in terms of graduation rates, traditional degree programs are graduating a higher percentage of their students than online universities by a fairly wide margin.
Why Do Online Schools Have a Higher Dropout Rate?
All of the statistics listed above raise an important question: Why do students who attend online universities have dropout rates so much higher than students at traditional programs? Although there is probably not a single answer to this question, here are three suggestions:
- Online university students usually have more on their plates. Online university students are nearly always non-traditional students who already have jobs and, in many cases, families. Working full-time, or even part-time, and trying to manage classes at the same time is a daunting task almost everyone.
- Students often believe going to school online will be easier. Students often make the mistake that classes will be easier online. In fact, the coursework is just as demanding as traditional coursework.
- Online universities often have lower admissions standards. While traditional universities screen applicants carefully and admit a relatively small percentage of students, online universities tend to admit a much higher percentage. Some of the students they admit may not be ready for college-level academics.
Don’t Be a Dropout
If you’re considering an online degree, be aware of the graduation rate problems listed above. Be careful not to assume that earning your degree online will be easier than earning your degree in the traditional way. Instead, be prepared to work hard and manage your time carefully.