Two months ago, after reviewing the fiscal 2005 results of for-profit education company DeVry (NYSE:DV), I concluded: "While all of the above news sounds pretty depressing . I do see a silver lining around DeVry's gloomy past two years' performance. Simply put, the company has done so badly for so long that it has nowhere else to go but up. Too many of its competitors have made too much money for too long for DeVry to be permitted to just sit on its, er, chair with flat growth and declining profits, year after year after year."

As it turns out, Thursday we saw a second silver lining to DeVry: The worse a company does in Year 1, the better its comps will look in Year 2 -- no matter how mediocre its absolute performance. Ordinarily, the numbers that DeVry achieved in its first quarter 2006 would be pretty unremarkable: $197 million in revenues isn't a whole lot more than the company amassed in Q1 2005 ($188 million), or in Q1 2004, for that matter ($189 million). It was, however, an improvement.

Similarly, investors in a company wouldn't ordinarily be thrilled to see their investment earning half as much in one fiscal year as it had earned two years previously. But here again, the "goodness" of an earnings result is relative. DeVry's $0.07 in per-share diluted profits in Q1 2006 might not look too attractive against fiscal Q1 2004's $0.15 -- but they're a heck of a lot better than last year's $0.03.

Sure, when it comes to profitability, DeVry still anchors the left end of the for-profit educating bell curve. The meager 3.6% net margin the company has achieved over the past 12 months is just a fraction of the net margins that even the weakest of its competitors have been hitting: Apollo Group's (NASDAQ:APOL) 19.8%, Career Education's (NASDAQ:CECO) 11%, Corinthian's (NASDAQ:COCO) 6.1%, ITT's (NYSE:ESI) 13.7%, Laureate's (NASDAQ:LAUR) 8.8%, and Strayer's (NASDAQ:STRA) 22.3%.

And no, DeVry's return to earnings growth shouldn't excuse its lousy performance in areas such as accounts receivable management (A/R grew 30% year over year, against revenue growth of just 4.5%.) But that's really the story here: DeVry has done a horrible job running its business to date. If it can even just begin chipping away at the wall of problems it has built for itself, things can only get better.

Don't know much about history? Learn more about DeVry's in:

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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company named above.