Gladys Forner said she had a good experience at the University of Phoenix's Augusta campus, where she received her bachelor's degree in psychology in September after taking 22 classes in 2 1/2 years.
Her sister, she said, is "so against Phoenix" because of the bad experience she had.
Pick any two students, even siblings, at an institution such as Augusta State University or the University of Georgia, and you might find a similar difference of opinion.
But according to a report released last month by the Education Trust, a nonprofit education advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., the experience of Forner's sister at Phoenix and other for-profit colleges is much more common than at public institutions such as ASU or UGA, or private, nonprofit colleges such as Paine College or Mercer University.
"I would say it was very good," said Forner, 40, of Harlem, of her experience at Phoenix. "I know Phoenix is a little more expensive than some of the colleges, but for the experience I had there, I would say it was well worth what I'm paying."
Still, Forner's experience, according to Education Trust, is the exception, not the rule, for students enrolled at Phoenix. The report, called "Subprime Opportunity: The Unfulfilled Promise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities," says only 9 percent of students enrolling at Phoenix graduate with a bachelor's degree within six years. Phoenix's own statistics show that 36 percent of those students graduate within six years and that 39 percent take more than six years to get the degree.
A more encouraging sign, at least at first glance, is that 66 percent of students enrolling in for-profit institutions earn a credential that requires two years or less within three years -- three times higher than the 22 percent rate at public community colleges.
The report, however, says of for-profit school graduates, "Students' inability to pay back the debt strongly suggests that the credentials students are earning at these schools, with the intention of preparing themselves for lucrative jobs and careers, may not be worth the cost. Even if they graduate, it seems clear that they are not entering the jobs, and bringing home the income, they had planned for when they entered the institution."
According to the Education Trust report, students who graduate from a for-profit college with a bachelor's degree have a median debt load of $31,190 -- nearly twice that for the graduate of a private, nonprofit institution and almost four times the debt carried by a public college graduate.
Phoenix's three-year graduation rate for associate degrees is much lower than the for-profit average, 26 percent, according to the school's own statistics, and an additional 31 percent of students seeking that credential earned it in more than three years.
Local Phoenix officials typically refer questions to their corporate headquarters. Asked last week for their reaction to the Education Trust report, the office issued a statement:
"Like every accredited college and university, degree completion rates at University of Phoenix are regularly assessed by the Department of Education. Unfortunately, these assessments follow an outdated model that favors traditional college students (i.e., those who graduate within a certain time frame). The Department's data ignore the realities of non-traditional students -- like those at University of Phoenix -- who take longer to finish their degrees due to the professional and family obligations that are common among adult working learners.
"It is unreasonable to expect non-traditional college students to complete their studies within the government's arbitrary, predetermined time frame, especially when we know those students take longer to finish their degrees because they have families and professional obligations. The majority of University of Phoenix students are these non-traditional students."
Forner fits that profile of "nontraditional student." She is married and has a 12-year-old daughter. She said the key to her success at Phoenix was an academic adviser who worked very well with her.
"He really did a lot for me and still is following up," she said. "As a student going there, to know that you feel special to somebody just helps your experience."
She said the key factor in her sister's disenchantment with the university is an academic adviser who did not work well with her.
Forner has not yet gotten a job with her degree, though she said she has a strong lead.
University of Phoenix psychology student Joy Hamby uses a computer before class at the Augusta campus. The for-profit school's most successful campus is in New Mexico. \nCOREY PERRINE/STAFF
The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., called out the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit university, for its low rate of graduates among its students.