Characteristics of Students Who Earn College Degrees at For-Profit Colleges


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Five characteristics predict graduation rates. Image by Parker Knight.

Five characteristics predict graduation rates – and they might surprise you. Image by Parker Knight.

The United States prides itself on being a country where anyone can become successful with the right work ethic.  This belief has lead many non-traditional students to attend for-profit colleges that cater to those who are not fresh out of high school – but are these schools a good choice for all students?

Students served by for-profit colleges have been termed the “neediest” by USA Today. Or, as Dr. Tim Gramling explained in his SAGE Open article on the topic, “for-profits largely serve adult students who are not recent high school graduates but who still need a college degree.”

For-Profit Colleges: Student Success or Scam Artists?

These for-profit colleges have come under fire for poor graduation rates and high rates of default, and many have been labeled “red flag colleges” by  the Education Department, according to an article in USA Today.

Research into the students who enter for-profit colleges and those that drop out demonstrates that in for-profit college, some students are much more likely to succeed than others.

The research of Tim Gramling, Doctor of Law and Policy and President of Colorado Technical University aims to inform the debate surrounding for-profit college education. Dr. Gramling examined the importance of a variety of characteristics on graduation rates at for-profit colleges.

Success in College: Five Characteristics Determine Graduation Rate

Sixteen student characteristics were studied including marital status, gender, program, and others. 2548 student records were examined. Before students entered the classroom, the researchers only needed four characteristics to predict graduation with 74.3% accuracy: “student’s enrollment status, race, credits required for their degree program, and PEFC.” PEFC stands for”primary estimated financial contribution,” or how much the student, or  if the student was a dependent, the parent, was expected to pay after receiving financial aid.

When the fifth characteristic of active students, their GPAs (grade point averages) were included, the accuracy of predicting who would graduate rose to 86.9%.

The overall results were as follows:

  • Contrary to some expectations, black students were more likely to graduate a for-profit college than white students.
  • Full-time students were more likely to graduate than part-time students.
  • Students with higher incomes had higher PEFCs, and were more likely to graduate.
  • The fewer credits required for the degree, the more likely students were to complete their program.
  • The higher the GPA the student maintained, the more likely the student was to complete his or her program.

Dr. Gramling concluded that  “student characteristics have a far larger impact on graduation than institution factors such as tax status and quality.”

Black Students & College: Implications

According to Dr. Gramling’s interview with Decoded Science, “The most important finding is that at this for-profit university, blacks had higher odds of graduation than whites. I could not locate another instance of this finding in the literature.”

The traditional college model has failed to graduate black men at the same rates as white students, whereas for-profits are demonstrating that they may be able t0 fill that education gap.  One area where for-profits may excel, according to the study, is offering an atmosphere where it is possible to build “meaningful relationships with faculty and staff.”

Online Education Research

Graduation leads to fufilled dreams.

Black men may benefit most from for-profit colleges. Image by Pacdog.

Dr. Gramling also called for research into the online education experience. In an exclusive interview with Dr. Gramling, he told Decoded Science, “My sense is that students outcomes at online for-profit universities would have similar differences from outcomes at online non-profits.”

Armed with the knowledge that these five characteristics largely determine graduation rates: GPA, PEFC, race, full or part-time status, and the number of credits required, for-profit colleges can design better programs to raise graduation rates.  Higher graduation rates will lead to fewer defaults on student loans and fewer broken dreams.


Gramling, T. How Five Student Characteristics Accurately Predict For-Profit University Graduation Odds. (2013). SAGE Open. Accessed August 4, 2013.

Marklin, B. et al. College Default Rates Higher than Grad Rates. (2013). USA Today. Accessed August 2, 2013.

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