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U. of Phoenix Reports on Students’ Academic Progress

The University of Phoenix has released its third “Academic Annual Report,” a document that continues to be notable not so much for the depth of information it provides on its students’ academic progress but for its existence at all. Few colleges, for-profit or otherwise, publish such reports.

Matthew Denhart, administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an organization that advocates for greater transparency and accountability about student learning in higher education, said the report was “kind of refreshing,” even as he noted the inherent limitations of a report in which the university itself chooses what information it will publish.

He said he especially liked the data Phoenix collected on how students’ salaries (most of them work while attending) rose at a rate higher than the national average while they were enrolled. Data like that are “something you really have to struggle to find anywhere else,” Mr. Denhart said.

The findings for the 2009 academic year did show some warts—most notably, declines from 2008 in program-completion rates. In 2009, the proportion of Phoenix students completing an associate degree within three years of enrolling was 23 percent, down from 26 percent the year before. Among bachelor’s degree students, the six-year completion rate was 34 percent, versus 36 percent the previous year. (You can dig into the numbers from this year’s report, and the two previous ones, here. Read The Chronicle’s coverage of the previous reports here and here.)

University officials said they believed the “current economic conditions” might have contributed to the declines in graduation rates. Many Phoenix students may have faced financial hardships that caused them to interrupt their studies, the officials said—the same explanation many four-year nonprofit colleges recently gave in a recent Chronicle analysis of graduation rates.

In November, Phoenix instituted a free three-week orientation program that is mandatory for all students entering with fewer than 24 credits. In a test of the orientation involving 30,000 students, the university found that 80 percent of the students who started the program completed it, and that retention rates among those students was higher than for those who didn’t take it. Phoenix’s president, William J. Pepicello, said the university hopes the orientation will eventually lead to better completion rates. (Phoenix calculates a completion rate because so few of its students are the first-time freshmen typically counted in the standard “graduation rate” calculations.)

The Phoenix academic report also includes findings on students’ performance relative to hundreds of thousands of students at nearly 400 peer institutions on two standardized tests: the Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills and the ETS Proficiency Profile (formerly called the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress).

For instance, on the Proficiency Profile, 2,428 University of Phoenix seniors slightly underperformed a comparison group of 42,649 seniors at peer institutions in critical thinking, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and moderately underperformed the peer group in reading, writing, and mathematics. In comparisons of seniors versus freshmen within the university, the 2,428 seniors slightly outperformed 4,003 freshmen in all categories except natural sciences, in which they were equivalent.

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