Online Colleges Reveal New Graduation and Dropout Rates—to a Degree

Reliable comparisons between online-education institutions are notoriously scarce, particularly for prospective students who want to find a college where students are likely to complete their studies and to learn how many years that typically takes. Today a Web site added new data intended to fill that void for 18 colleges, but it still has some gaps.

The site, College Choices for Adults, was created several years ago by a third-party nonprofit technology cooperative, WCET. It has now added information about student retention and completion rates to already-existing data on student demographics and surveys of satisfaction. This data includes part-time and transfer students, which is what makes it unique, said Cali Morrison, the manager for major grants at WCET, in an e-mail.

“What we found was that many adult-serving institutions like we have listed on College Choices for Adults don’t enroll many, if any, first-time, full-time students,”  she said. And outcomes for the part-time or transfer students were not captured by existing U.S. Department of Education surveys, so the typical adult learner had little to go on. “This is new data. It has not been published anywhere previously,” she said.

Using the site, a consumer can learn that 58 percent of bachelor’s-degree students at Argosy University complete the program within six years. That proportion is only 37 percent at Kaplan University. And it’s 30 percent at American Public University. The site also has categories for longer times to degrees if a consumer wants to see them.

WCET reviews the data standards but doesn’t audit the original information, Ms. Morrison says. But she believes it is very reliable. “To be honest, if an institution were going to lie about their data, you would think they would make it look like their students are performing better. This measure does not make all of our institutions look rosy,” she said.

Still, observers may question the numbers of students those percentages are based on. For instance, the Kaplan completion numbers are drawn from nearly 2,000 students, while the comparatively better Argosy numbers come from about 150 students, according to notes on the Web site. And some of the colleges don’t report in all categories. Although Capella University offers several kinds of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as certificates, it reports only one institutionwide number for degree completion. And Fort Hays State University does not report any completion or retention data on the Web site.

But for students interested in the colleges that do report, this is a new window into what has been a dark, obscure realm.


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