- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

From grade school to college, nontraditional education is growing in popularity, according to a new study from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the 2008-09 school year, 1.4 million students across the country attended public charter schools, up from 340,000 a decade earlier.

NCES’ “Condition of Education” report also shows that business is booming at private, for-profit colleges, which have come under increasing fire from prominent Democratic lawmakers and the Obama administration.

In 2008-09, for-profit institutions awarded 144,298 associate’s degrees, a 125 percent increase from 10 years before. Over the same time, nontraditional colleges saw a 418 percent increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned, the report says.

Overall college enrollment shot up from 13 million students in 2000 to 18 million in 2009. About 27 percent of that growth — approximately 1.2 million students — occurred at for-profits.

NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley said the figures show students choosing alternative schools “at multiple levels at education.”

“We’re very interested … in whether that growth can be sustained,” Mr. Buckley told The Washington Times on Wednesday.

He said the rising number of families choosing charter schools seems to be “a robust trend” and will likely continue. Many states, such as Indiana, have recently passed massive charter school voucher programs, which could fuel growth for years to come. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, are debating charter school legislation.

Fewer children attending Catholic and other private schools could also be boosting enrollment at charters. From the 2007-08 to 2009-10 school years, private schools lost nearly 500,000 students nationwide, Mr. Buckley said.

“Charters have been designed to boost student achievement, and that word has gotten out there,” said Peter C. Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, explaining why he thinks growth in the sector will continue as parents look for higher-quality alternatives to traditional public schools and cheaper alternatives to private institutions.

While the arrow seems to be pointing up for charter schools, the growth at for-profits could be stalled by a new federal regulation designed to measure “gainful employment.”

The first draft of the rule barred for-profit programs from accepting students paying with taxpayer money if less than 35 percent of former students don’t begin repaying their loans within three years. An updated draft is now at the White House being reviewed.

Noah Black, spokesman for the Coalition for Educational Success, which represents more than 70 career colleges across the country, said Congress and the Education Department should review the NCES report and rethink the gainful-employment measure.

The report “confirms for us that a large number of students out there … are looking for the flexibility offered by the career college sector,” he said. “People are realizing there is a demand” for such institutions.

For example, 30 percent of American college students 35 years old and older attend for-profits, compared with only 3 percent of students under 25, according to the report.

The report also highlights grim numbers for D.C. schools, which tied with Nevada for lowest percentage of students who graduate high school within four years.

About 56 percent of D.C. students graduated on time in 2007-08, according to the report. That’s far below the national average of 74.7 percent and even further below Wisconsin, which claimed the top spot by graduating 90 percent of its students in four years.

A decade ago, more than 68 percent of D.C. students graduated within four years.

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