Arizona Has Lowest College Completion Rate In the Nation!!! (Or Not.) A Lesson in Reading Results

A Cronkite News story headline screams, "Arizona posts lowest college completion rate, highest default rate." An Associated Press headline is equally dire: "Report: Arizona tied for lowest college graduation rates nationwide." To give Cronkite News its due, after its headline grabs you with its partial truth, the article does a good job of breaking down the overall completion rate to show that our public universities graduate a higher percentage than the national average. The very short AP article, after listing the Arizona four year college completion rate at 29 percent, ends by saying "Education Secretary Arne Duncan said graduation rates are especially low, and default rates are especially high when it comes to for-profit schools." What does that sentence mean exactly? It doesn't say, no further explanation. Oh, and AP says the 29 percent figure represents students who graduate in four years. Wrong. It's the percentage of students who graduate within six years. Oops.

So let's go to the U.S. Department of Education report fact sheet that both articles draw their figures from and see how it breaks down college graduation and college loan default rates. Colleges are separated into three categories: Public, Private and For-profit. (Since it doesn't specify, I have to assume that "Private" means nonprofit, since "For-profit" colleges are also private, by definition.) Arizona's 29 percent, six-year graduation rate lumps all three types of colleges together, putting us at the bottom of the heap alongside Alaska. Looks like bad news for Arizona. But when we look at the public college graduation rate separately, it's 57 percent, just above the national average of 55 percent. Meanwhile, Arizona's for-profit college graduation rate is 23 percent, well below the 32 percent national average. You can attribute much of that rate to University of Phoenix, which has students from all over the country, yet all of them count here because they're attending an "Arizona college." The abysmal graduation rate of University of Phoenix's 213,000 students drags our numbers way, way down.

Then there's the student loan default rate. Arizona's is the highest in the nation at 18 percent. But not so fast. Our public college default rate is 9 percent, the national average for public colleges. Our for-profit default rate is 19 percent. That happens to be the national for-profit average, but since University of Phoenix is the largest for-profit college in the nation, its default rate has a larger-than-normal impact on Arizona's overall rate.

We have plenty to criticize about our public education system here in Arizona, but let's not criticize our public universities' graduation and student loan default rates by mixing them in with the results from Huckster U University of Phoenix.