The Difficulty in Speaking Plainly about Truly Abysmal Statistics

One of my posts this past week was on John Kasich’s appointment of Gordon Gee to explore ways of increasing affordability at Ohio’s public universities. Given Gee’s continuing status as the highest paid administrator at any public university in the United States, I expressed my skepticism about the appointment, a skepticism based in part on the following consideration:

“Second, absent those voices [i.e. the voices of students and faculty], the emphasis is likely to be on technological gimmicks such as MOOCs. It’s almost impossible to not notice that ‘innovation’ is juxtaposed with ‘online colleges.’ But several of the premises underlying that juxtaposition are completely faulty. The online for-profit institutions have suffered a major contraction, are considerably more expensive than most public colleges and universities, and have abysmal completion rates.”

Ever since I posted that piece, it has been bothering me that, despite the very obvious bursting of the for-profit bubble, I still felt compelled to explain the major reasons why the for-profit online institutions have proven to be anything but a model of successful innovation in higher education.

What is very much needed, I think, is a much more definitive and a much more forceful way of suggesting just how dreadful the performance of those institutions has been—something that is far enough over-the-top to put to rest once and for all the notion that these institutions represent anything but the worst possibilities in the continuing, relentless corporatization of American higher education.

Although completing college is not a matter of life and death, it is very clearly a major factor in a student’s subsequent quality of life, in his or her economic survival.

So, while allowing that such comparisons may be perceived as a trivialization of great tragedies, I would like to illustrate how the toll of several iconic disasters would have been much worse if the rate of survival had been the equivalent of the graduation rate for online students at the University of Phoenix.

In February 2013, the Washington Post reported that the University of Phoenix had an “overall graduation rate—meaning first-time undergraduates who get a degree in six years—of about 16 percent, though the graduation rate for online programs [was] a quarter of that.”

In 1937, when the Hindenburg exploded just before landing in New Jersey, 35 of the 91 crew and passengers on board, or about 39%, perished in the flames.


If the death rate had been the equivalent of the graduation rate for online students at the University of Phoenix, 87 of those on board would have perished, or 52 more than actually perished, and only four would have survived. (One must round up these numbers because, obviously, a fraction of a person cannot survive.)

In 1912, when the Titanic sank hours after striking on iceberg in the North Atlantic, 1519 of the 2224 passengers and crew, or 70%, perished in the icy waters. Only 705 of those on board survived.


But, if the death rate had been the equivalent of the graduation rate for online students at the University of Phoenix, another 616 would have perished and only 89 would have survived.

Okay, I can already hear the protests that these analogies are terribly inappropriate.

But, ironically, at least in one sense, these analogies are insufficient to convey the cost to students enrolled online at these for-profit institutions. Those students are, after all, taking on much higher debt than the students at any other types of institutions, and that debt is not at all dependent upon their completing degrees. These students not only fail to complete degrees, but they will be both paying for–feeling the consequences of–that failure and paying off the direct cost of that failure for much of the rest of their working lives.

So, for the analogies to be complete, I think that one would have to suppose that the companies whose (air)ships met disaster, instead of paying indemnities to the heirs of those who perished, would have charged them some exorbitant additional fees—say, the equivalent of first-class fares—against the expense of recovering their loved ones’ remains, whether they actually managed to recover those remains or not.

In any case, however unfortunate my choice of these analogies may be, it is no more unfortunate than a system that allows institutions to generate almost 90% of their revenues from federal grants and federally guaranteed student loans, while having graduation rates that are so unconscionably low that they might make the low graduation rates at other types of institutions seem somehow less problematic than they are. To be clear, I am not trying to dismiss the broader issues related to the low graduation rates across all categories of our institutions; rather, I am simply trying to highlight the absurdity that the very worst performing institutions should continue to be pointed to as being, in any way, exemplary.

Indeed, if they have the benefit of any distance, the very few students who do complete online degrees from institutions such as the University of Phoenix must surely feel almost as singularly blessed by fate as the survivors of other great disasters.

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