WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an effort to distinguish itself within the embattled for-profit college sector, DeVry Inc. presented research Wednesday that portrays the company as employing some of the best student-centered practices for helping first-generation, low-income students achieve success.
But while the practices touted in the study—titled “Promising Practices Supporting Low-Income, First-Generation Students at DeVry University”—have been shown to be effective in prior research, the authors of the study conceded that it is not yet known how effective such practices have been at DeVry University in Chicago, which was the focus of the study.
“It’s still a little early to find out how this will affect graduating rates,” said Abby Miller, co-author of the study and Research and Project Manager at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education, which examined things for DeVry Inc.
Miller was speaking at a policy forum held Wednesday at the American Institute of Architects building in Washington, D.C. The specific practices adopted by DeVry that were mentioned in the report include approaching support services for students as “customer service”; providing “early, in-depth, on-campus student opportunities”; and establishing and sustaining a “shared sense of community.”
The forum was heavy on commendations for DeVry but scarce on hard data.
Upon being questioned by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, DeVry officials related that they paid The Pell Institute $75,000 to conduct the study, which was largely qualitative and devoid of specific institutional data regarding the persistence and graduation rates among the specific groups of students that represented the focus of the study.
The study itself says “data are not yet available that can determine the effectiveness of DeVry University’s recent support initiatives.”
The reality is that only about a third of students at DeVry University in Chicago—34 percent, to be precise—graduate within the six-year timeframe used to calculate graduation rates among four-year colleges, according to the federally maintained Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, more commonly known as IPEDS.
The data system also shows that roughly 10 percent of DeVry graduates in Chicago default on their student loans.
DeVry officials acknowledged that their graduation and default rates are not where they would like them to be and said the study that DeVry commissioned The Pell Institute to do should be seen as a sign that they are genuinely interested in improvement.
“Are we satisfied with a 34 percent graduation rate? Absolutely not,” said Sharon Thomas Parrott, Senior Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer at DeVry Inc. But she said DeVry’s graduation rates must be viewed within the larger context of similarly low graduation rates for “high-risk” students.
“We certainly want to get to 5 in 10,” Thomas Parrott said. “Nothing short of 10 in 10 is acceptable from a moral imperative. Yes, we need to do better. That will solve the default issues.”
Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, director of The Pell Institute and a co-author of the study, said one of the study goals is to get policy-makers to provide more support for campuses that offer the same type of student support services as DeVry.
Wednesday’s forum comes at a time when the for-profit sector, the U.S. Department of Education and various groups and organizations are embroiled in an impassioned debate about the merits of a forthcoming “gainful employment” rule that seeks to cut off federal student aid to programs, including many at for-profit colleges, whose students wind up being saddled with high debt-to-income burdens and who have low loan-repayment rates.
Indications are the rule is currently being reviewed and due out any day.
Proponents of the rule say it would stop ineffective programs from capitalizing on low-income students and minorities and leaving them without degrees or degrees of dubious merit, while opponents say the rule could adversely impact such groups by cutting off their access to higher education.
The rule itself was not mentioned specifically at Wednesday’s forum, but speakers hinted at the desirability of allowing institutions such as DeVry to let their conscience be their guide as opposed to increased regulation when it comes to improving student outcomes.
“Do it not in the context of new regulations or compliance, but moral obligations,” said Jose Fraire, Vice President of Student and Institutional Success at Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation.
Speakers also suggested that for-profit colleges be allowed to use federal student support money from federal TRIO programs to support low-income students at for-profits since many students are using their federal student loans to attend for-profits.
The practice would be legal but is rare, according to officials at the Council for Opportunity in Education, or COE, which advocates for federal colleges that host TRIO programs. COE also helped The Pell Institute produce the study, and several of its members were present at Wednesday’s forum.
Sharon Thomas Parrott, DeVry Vice President, said the company has no interest in using federal TRIO money to augment its student support services. Fraire, of Texas Guaranteed Student Loan, said colleges and universities should focus on embedding student support services into their operations irrespective of whether there is federal money allocated for such services.
Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of COE, said he wouldn’t be against the idea of using TRIO money at for-profits but that the for-profits also should match it “dollar for dollar” given the fact that they are commercial enterprises.
“I don’t have any objection to for-profit schools having TRIO services, provided they administer them with integrity,” Mitchem said. “Integrity is the key word.”