Update: I have added comments from the University of Phoenix. . . and Strayer.

Is there such a thing as an unacceptably low college graduation rate?

There is seemingly universal agreement in higher education that college completion rates aren’t high enough. Yet it’s difficult to find anyone pointing fingers at a particular college. Lawmakers lament the low graduation rates of students who receive federal Pell grants, the largest source of federal student aid to low-income students. Yet to criticize a college with a large Pell student population and a miniscule graduation rate is thought to be bad form.

Washington Monthly magazine and the Education Sector nonprofit broke the silence last year with a report on collegiate “dropout factories,” ranking the colleges with the lowest completion rates and spotlighting a Chicago college campus whose graduation rate pales by comparison to that of the Chicago Public Schools.

“Show me a city with a high-school dropout factory and I will show you a college in the same city with an even lower graduation rate,” said Kevin Carey, an Education Sector researcher who has studied graduation rates at length. “Apparently there’s no number so low that it automatically triggers loss of accreditation. There’s no number so low that it causes state leaders to consider shutting an institution down.”

I spent some time this fall looking at the bottom of the grad-rate chart in the Washington region. The research spawned a story on Coppin State University, a historically black campus in Baltimore that is working hard to turn around its low completion rate.

In this notebook-emptying post, I want to spotlight the other colleges in the District, Maryland and Virginia with unusually low completion rates. My analysis drew the line at 33 percent — a graduation rate of one third. Here are 10 schools that fell short of that bar.

The analysis looks at an average of graduation rates for three years, 2007 through 2009. It’s a comparatively generous six-year rate, meaning that the tally gives every student six years to finish a four-year degree. The analysis is limited to schools that reported graduation data to the feds.

1. University of Phoenix, Northern Virginia Campus. Graduation rate: 6 percent.

For-profit colleges have been hammered by federal lawmakers for their low completion rates. In fact, of all the colleges I contacted for this analysis, Phoenix was the only institution that had some recent experience fielding questions about low graduation rates.

University officials point out, for starters, that for-profit colleges don’t easily submit to an analysis of federal graduation rates. The federal rate looks only at “first-time, full-time freshmen.” Students at for-profit colleges tend to be second- , third- or even fourth-time students, and if they are doing anything full-time, it’s probably working.

So, the Phoenix figure covers only a fraction of the school’s student population. (Fourteen percent of that population, in the case of Northern Virginia campus.)

That said, it is not likely that the part-time returning students who make up the bulk of the Phoenix enrollment are graduating at much higher rates.

Richard Castellano, University of Phoenix spokesman, said the figure above (and the figure below, for the Phoenix campus in Maryland) “are not even in the ballpark. When you take into account all students at our Maryland and Virginia campuses, the University would not even make this list.”

I asked him to provide graduation rates that account for all students at those campuses. He said he could not. But he said the university’s completion rate nationally is about 34 percent for students seeking bachelor’s degrees.

2. University of Maryland, University College. Graduation rate: 6 percent.

Can it be that a university in the vaunted Maryland state university system has a 6 percent graduation rate? Well, yes and no. UMUC is a contemporary model of the traditional night school, an institution designed for adults returning to higher education. Much like the for-profits, University College tends to take students who have been in and out of the collegiate revolving door. Thus, its federal graduation rate is based on a comparatively low number of full-time, first-time students. But no one at UMUC is claiming the school’s true completion rate is vastly higher than 6 percent. Their point is more that a traditional graduation-rate analysis simply does not work at the Adelphi campus.

3. University of Phoenix, Maryland Campus. Graduation rate: 7 percent.

See #1, above.

4. University of the District of Columbia. Graduation rate: 12 percent.

UDC’s struggle with low completion rates is well-documented. President Allen Sessoms spun off the UDC community college into a separate unit, partly for the purpose of improving the success rate at the four-year university.

His goal for the UDC graduation rate: “at least 50 percent.” It will be several years before we know whether he has met it.

“This should be the exemplar of an urban public university,” Sessoms said.

5. Strayer University, District of Columbia. Graduation rate: 15 percent.

Strayer is a for-profit college serving a demographic similar to those of Phoenix and UMUC, above.

A Strayer spokeswoman told me the university boasts a significantly higher graduation rate for its full cohort of bachelor’s students, 33 percent. I gather that the success rate is particularly high for students who arrive at Strayer having already earned college credit elsewhere (such students are not included in the federal data). Strayer reports a 50 percent graduation rate for students who arrived with more than 45 credit hours. Those who brought 90 credit hours had a 70-percent completion rate, the spokeswoman said.

A GAO report this month compared the success rates of for-profit colleges with and demographically similar schools — providing a sort of apples-to-apples comparison. The report found for-profits generally outperforming other schools in two-year associate degree completion, but badly underperforming their peers in four-year BA completion.

6. Baltimore International College. Graduation rate: 15 percent.

This private, nonprofit career school was in an accreditation crisis and transitioning from two-year to four-year studies during the period in question, according to spokesman Kevin O’Keefe.

O’Keefe contends that the federal grad-rate data are thus rife with errors:

“The actual graduation rate was on average 56% for the period 2006-2009 and 67% for the period 2007-2009,” he said in an e-mail, attributing those figures to school leaders.

I should note, however, that the school’s year-to-year retention rate, the share of students who return from one year to the next, is reported by the federal government as about 30 percent.

7. Coppin State University. Graduation rate: 16 percent. For context on Coppin, read the full article in The Post.

8. Saint Pauls College. Graduation rate: 18 percent.

Saint Pauls is a private HBCU in Lawrenceville, Va., with a student population similar to that of Coppin State. Similar schools in other parts of the nation perform better, but not much better.

9. Sojourner-Douglass College. Graduation rate: 22 percent.

Sojourner-Douglass is a private, nonprofit “Afrocentric” college in Baltimore. It falls into a category of Predominantly Black Institutions.

President Charles Simmons told me that both HBCUs and PBIs compare favorably to historically white colleges when the analysis considers students of similar demographic backgrounds.

“When comparable cohorts of black students at HBCUs, PBIs, and HWCUs are compared, the data indicate that HBCUs are generally doing a better job of retaining and graduating their student cohort than HWCUs,” he said in an e-mail.

“Importantly, HBCUs are not only doing a better job of retaining and graduating black students than other colleges and universities, they are also doing disproportionately better at graduating blacks in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), in teaching professions, health professions and other growth and high needs disciplines.”

The staff of Education Trust, the nonprofit dedicated to closing achievement gaps, helped me to do what Simmons asked: to compare the completion rate at Sojourner-Douglass College to the success rates of demographically similar colleges. Their analysis found that the school’s peers had an average graduation rate of about 29 percent, seven points higher than the rate at Sojourner-Douglass.

Simmons said the EdTrust analysis was flawed.

10. Southern Virginia University. Graduation rate: 25 percent.

Here is yet another type of college: a private Christian institution serving a student population that is 86 percent white.

College officials offered several items of context to explain why their circumstances were unique.

SVU has operated in its current format, as a liberal arts school in the Latter-day Saints community, for 16 years. As such, the school lacks the “name-recognition and loyalty that older and larger institutions enjoy,” spokesman Burke Olsen said in an e-mail.

Olsen said the school has shown “consistent improvement in our retention year-by-year—a trend we expect to continue.”

Third, he said, “many of our students leave for two years to serve missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which affects our graduation rate.”

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