Parthenon Group’s Research Study Adds Fight to Career College’s Achievements

Sounding distant, his feed occasionally breaking up as though a signal hadn't been dialed in, the Parthenon Group's Rob Lytle profiled a study with findings that were suddenly news.

The first notice came via email on Tuesday noting a webinar to be hosted by career education giant Corinthian Colleges. In less than two days, with help from modern technology and an efficient public relations campaign, Lytle's telephone presentation from Europe became a can't-miss event for the higher education realm, and possibly anyone willing to keep an open mind.

On Tuesday, I wasn’t familiar with Lytle or the independent research organization with which he’s affiliated. The Parthenon Group, commissioned by Corinthian, sought to answer some long-lingering questions about career colleges or “for-profit” institutions and their value in the educational and economic sense. The organization took an objective look at various data sources to see what role career colleges would play in meeting the President’s ambitious 2020 college attainment goals.

Yesterday afternoon, Lytle detailed the findings during a webinar slide show. He noted early on that the study involved a “first-time analysis” of data, including Beginning Post-Secondary Survey results that disclose student outcomes five years after students enrolled, IPEDS (Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System) data, and student financial aid data that focuses on how students finance their educations. The results showed that career colleges did more than stand up in an apples-to-apples comparison with public two-year colleges.

Lately, there’s been story after story in the New York Times and elsewhere that question career colleges’ true value and question the debt that students take on to change their lives. Apparently, there one too many stories relying on one-sided anecdotes led to the study, noted the conference call’s moderator, Corinthian’s Mark L. Pelesh, who is Executive Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs.

Corinthian’s connection to the study might cloud the results in some experts’ eyes given what could be a slant toward career education, but their motive was clear. Corinthian wasn’t spinning the study’s results in any way. They were proud of them. Their efforts felt legitimate, almost as though they’d laid down a self-imposed gauntlet to bring some facts rather than conjecture into the debate about private sector educational opportunities and outcomes.

Lytle reiterated that the study used raw data. How this differs from other independent research organizations that have compiled similar studies, such as those the Imagine America Foundation works with every year to compile its annual Fact Book, it wasn’t clear.

I imagine the answer would be somewhere in the definition of “raw”. Lytle claimed the numbers his organization had accessed help build a clearer picture of career colleges than ever before, and could be replicable should anyone want to double-check the findings or attempt the research on their own.

Whether the study was “first” is semantics and not what this event was about. Corinthian had everyone’s ear for an hour as the results passed slide by slide on monitors across the country. With the astounding growth of career colleges the last few years and the struggle of traditional colleges and universities, the higher ed community's senses were heightened to the topic.

The study found that career colleges:

  • Increase access to post-secondary education for underrepresented students, those who can’t afford or don’t live close to other means of learning
  • Produce graduation rates equal to or better than public institutions
  • Increase the average earnings for graduates and do so at a higher rate than public institutions
  • Help students maintain a low debt to earnings ratio.

There were few surprises in the findings, but the research was there to back what was inevitably the sector’s performance. The call wasn’t for surprises or for anyone familiar with career education, though, so I began to wonder – for the first time in my career covering career education, “Who was this argument for anyway?”

This argument wasn’t for anyone who attends a career college, necessarily, and only partly for those who work in the field. The facts were to overturn the vitriolic accounts about the sector that can have an impact in places that count, such as Capitol Hill.

Career colleges fulfill a role in our nation’s workforce. Of course they do. Now there are some numbers behind it. Surely it helps to hear the other side, sometimes, but until journalists step inside a career institution and see the career education world for themselves, findings will be findings. On an intellectual level, and for the arguments that can be made among lawmakers in Washington, the numbers help. I don’t believe that’s an oversimplification. We all know how a few numbers can sway perceptions on Capitol Hill.

From afar, Lytle furthered the career college sector’s battle for relevancy and, to some extent, the right to go about its business. “From afar” is exactly how an independent researcher needs to approach his or her work to avoid any partiality or attachment to the outcomes. And for that, Rob Lytle’s presentation from Europe was a nice touch. He left the conversation about the relevancy of for-profits schools exactly where it needed to be: back in America, in someone else’s hands.

Kevin Kuzma, Editor, Career College Central

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