For-profit or Nonprofit College? The Difference Really Does Matter

Higher education today does not look like it once did. Today, the typical college setting is no longer the traditional college campus filled with 18 to 22 year olds who are predominantly white males who enroll full time and live on or close to campus.

Different models and programs have emerged to meet the changing needs of today’s college students. Online, part-time, and competency-based credentials are some of the ways that today’s higher education institutions are reaching out to students who are on average older, more female, and racially diverse.


These different models bear promise for adapting to the busy lives of today’s students.

In this mix, one kind of higher education model that bears close analysis is whether the college is a for-


profit institution. The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos is stepping back from the tougher regulations imposed by the Obama administration on for-profits. For profit colleges have argued that they serve a need that public institutions either overlook or have not adapted for.

What does the evidence say? The facts are clear that for-profit colleges do not serve their students well. Just twenty-three percent of students enrolled at for-profit four-year colleges graduate within six years, compared to 59 percent of students at nonprofit colleges. That’s a whopping 36 percent difference.

Completing the college degree is the most important factor in seeing increased earnings, so it’s perhaps not surprising that former students of for-profit colleges—most of whom never graduate—struggle the most to repay their loans. The high rate of defaults for those who attended a for-profit college is nevertheless staggering. Most of these students—52 percent—have defaulted on their loans. This is more than triple the 17 percent default rate for students from nonprofit colleges.

The latest findings show that for that small number of students who do complete any kind of credential from a for-profit college, they are less likely to be employed, are earning significantly less in the jobs they find, and have borrowed thousands more to complete their degrees.

Higher percentages of low income and African-American students attend for profit colleges than do white and middle class students. This means that the promise of higher education works least for the students who could and should benefit the most.

Today’s college students have an array of programs and offerings to choose from. We should welcome innovative approaches that enable more Americans to continue their education or update their skills for the ever-changing marketplace.

But programs that claim to be innovative or convenient can’t ignore that their fundamental responsibility is to their students. In every kind of program, students need to be engaged and academically supported. How can we help students make smart choices out of this complicated landscape?


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