For 50 years, Empire College has carved a niche as a smaller, more attentive alternative to two-year public schools, such as nearby Santa Rosa Junior College.
Nearly 80 percent of undergraduates who started at Empire in fall 2006 finished their studies within the "normal time" for their program, according to federal figures. Just 11 percent of SRJC students did.
But recently released student loan default rates have put the college afoul of new state regulations and have raised questions about how much value Empire's $16,000 to $20,000 annual tuition provides.
According to federal numbers, more than 26 percent of Empire students who started repaying federal student loans in fiscal year 2008 defaulted by the end of last September, more than double the national average. The data is for students of Empire's business school, not its law school.
By comparison, 16.29 percent of SRJC students in the same position defaulted and just 3.72 percent of Sonoma State students did, according to the data.
That places Empire squarely in the middle of an intense nationwide debate about the merits of for-profit schools whose wide-ranging ranks include Empire, the worldwide University of Phoenix, online colleges and any variety of culinary and other trade schools that often leave students with high debt and low-paying jobs.
Empire President Roy Hurd insists his school is an excellent deal, providing students with an intimate, real-world education, including internships at 150 area businesses.
More than 80 percent of Empire graduates get jobs, he said. And biannual student surveys regularly find satisfaction rates of more than 90 percent.
Still, he acknowledged the economy has made it harder on some students, especially those who drop out.
"Every school is dealing with some very difficult times," he said. "If you can't find a job, you're going to have this kind of problem."