6 Pros and Cons of For-Profit Colleges

Published on Sep 20, 2021
Updated Apr 17, 2023
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  • For-profit colleges get a bad rap, but some offer practical programs for working students.
  • With high tuition and no regional accreditation, students may not get their money's worth.
  • Online for-profit schools may not offer common support services, such as academic advising.

The higher education landscape has shifted dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coinciding with an increased demand for online learning, undergraduate enrollment at for-profit institutions rose 3% in 2020, while community colleges saw a 9% decline. Even in the face of substantial bad press, for-profit colleges are welcoming more and more students.

Considering that growth, it's worth looking at for-profit colleges and the pros and cons prospective students should consider. Read on to see whether a for-profit college is a practical choice for you.

What Is a For-Profit College?

As opposed to nonprofit institutions, for-profit colleges prioritize financial dividends and the needs of stakeholders over student success and academic quality. Additionally, nonprofit schools can receive regional accreditation. Schools that earn regional accreditation meet rigorous standards related to areas like administration, academics, and student services.

While for-profit schools have significant drawbacks, they tend to maintain high acceptance rates and often focus on technical and skills-based training. Offering flexible programs, for-profit institutions entice students with the promise of career advancement and lax admission requirements.

Large for-profit colleges include DeVry University, Grand Canyon University, and the University of Phoenix.

The Pros of For-Profit Colleges

While most students should prioritize nonprofit colleges, some may benefit from the career-focused curricula and flexibility offered by for-profit colleges. Thousands of students enroll at for-profit schools every year. As such, it's worth exploring why these schools may appeal to some learners.

They Boast Higher Acceptance Rates

Most for-profit colleges maintain an open-admission policy, making it easy for applicants to get accepted. Schools like Grand Canyon University only require applicants to possess a high school or GED diploma. GCU does not require standard application components like essays, resumes, and letters of recommendation.

Additionally, for-profit schools provide prospective students with multiple avenues to gain admission. Schools like DeVry University administer their own placement examinations to evaluate college-level skills for students who don't meet standardized test benchmarks.

While some of these schools may require standardized test scores, their base requirements often fall below national averages. For example, DeVry requires a composite ACT score of just 17.

For potential students struggling to gain admission into nonprofit schools, a for-profit school may seem like a reasonable and tempting option.

They May Offer More Flexibility

Attending a for-profit school often leads to more academic flexibility for students. In addition to offering rolling or open admission, many for-profit institutions boast a deep catalog of online classes.

Especially enticing for working students anticipating a career change, online programs can allow learners to keep up with personal and professional obligations while simultaneously completing degree requirements. Many online programs deliver coursework asynchronously, enabling students to complete assignments largely at their own pace.

For working students with children, online programs can also cut back on the cost of childcare. Without the fees and travel time associated with on-campus learning, degree-seekers can save money while earning college credits from the comfort of home.

You Can Focus on Vocational and Skills-Based Training

Students forgoing traditional academic pathways offered by four-year institutions may be interested in the vocational and skills-based training offered by many for-profit schools.

Suppose you plan on pursuing a career in an area such as cosmetology, plumbing, or auto mechanics. In that case, completing a long list of general education requirements might not be worth your time or money.

For students wanting to pursue technical certificates, completing unrelated academic requirements and electives can be time-consuming and expensive. A vocational program highlights technical proficiency while focusing on topics that surround a particular vocation. An online certificate or diploma program can provide a clearer, faster path toward a new career.

Furthermore, many skills-based programs provide both the training students need to enhance their careers and earn technical certification. Often led by experienced professionals, these programs provide hands-on training and help students secure internships, apprenticeships, and job placements.

The Cons of For-Profit Colleges

While for-profit colleges can fulfill some students' unique academic and professional needs, there are reasons why for-profit institutions generally have a questionable reputation. We explore a few of those reasons below.

They're Often More Expensive

Considering that many for-profit schools don't hold regional accreditation — and that students pay nearly twice as much in tuition compared to public four-year colleges — for-profit college prices often don't match the education they provide. If vocational training is on your radar, community colleges offer similar educational resources at a fraction of the for-profit price.

A for-profit school's hefty price tag is even more concerning when considering graduation rates. According to a 2020 report published by the National Student Clearinghouse, the eight-year degree completion rate for students at for-profit schools was about 38% for the 2012 cohort. This means that almost two-thirds of these students aren't reaping the financial benefits of earning a degree.

For comparison, the overall degree completion rate for all institution types for the 2012 cohort was about 61%.

Imagine investing serious time and money in completing coursework at a for-profit college. Now imagine that you want to transfer to another school. Research shows that 94% of credits earned at for-profit colleges do not transfer. As an added financial hurdle, students attending non-accredited for-profit schools cannot qualify for federal financial aid, including federal student loans and Pell Grants.

They May Offer Less Support

Nonprofit colleges provide learners with a long list of student services, programs, and organizations that enhance the college experience. These opportunities and resources can help your journey through higher education be safe, healthy, and fulfilling. Standout schools also provide other elements like campus ministries, LGBTQ+ support, and Greek life.

However, in an attempt to reduce costs and increase profits, for-profit colleges may not offer popular student services, including academic advising, career support, and on-campus dining options.

What's more, students who join online for-profit programs may miss out on many of the community-based and social elements of an on-campus experience. That said, many adult learners juggling work and family obligations find online learning a practical way to enhance their career options and boost their earning potential.

They Have Poor Reputations

For-profit schools like Trump University and ITT Tech have come under serious scrutiny over the past few years. While not all for-profit institutions are the same, when profits take priority over the academic success of students, conflicts arise. Nonprofits aren't in the business of willfully losing money, but any financial gains go back into the school rather than shareholders' bank accounts.

The degrees conferred by for-profit schools also tend to have a less-than-favorable reputation. While for-profit skepticism varies among academic fields and professions, graduating from a for-profit school can affect your job opportunities, career advancement, and admission into academic programs.

Before enrolling, conduct serious research about your prospective schools. Define your academic and vocational needs and weigh them against online reviews, news, and professional opinions.

It's hard to measure the inherent value of an education, but the time and money you invest are quantifiable. Take time to make an informed choice about your academic and professional future.

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Lonnie Woods III

Lonnie Woods III

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development practitioner whose research examines the career competencies of college students studying arts-related majors. Woods holds a BS in fine art photography from Towson University and an MA in higher education and student affairs from New York University. He has 10-plus years of experience working in higher education, with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, New York University, The George Washington University, and Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Feature Image: Bloomberg / Contributor / Bloomberg / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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