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Important Things You Need to Know About For-Profit Colleges

For-profit colleges are an enigma to many students. Here's a rundown of these unique institutions and the instances in which you should consider one.

There are many factors that go into choosing a college. Sometimes a school feels right the moment a student sets foot on campus. But sometimes it’s the practical considerations that win out—things like tuition, scheduling, and credit transferability. For-profit colleges—the institutions advertised heavily on TV and social media feeds—promise students they can deliver on many of the practical aspects of going to college. Time is a major selling point for these schools, which assure students they can earn their degree and start working in less time than if they went to a traditional nonprofit college. But what should you know before pursuing a for-profit school? Let’s discuss.

A brief history of for-profit colleges

For-profit institutions were founded to make higher education more accessible to low-income students. Originally focused on career training, their purpose has been to give students the tools they need to find a job in a few months rather than several years at a traditional higher education institution. Nationwide, student success and satisfaction rates for these colleges have been mixed. Some for-profit schools have been criticized for misleading students about cost, among other factors. It’s important to conduct thorough research and ask a lot of questions if you’re considering a for-profit college.

Related: List: Popular For-Profit Universities

For-profit vs. nonprofit colleges

So how does a for-profit school compare to a traditional college that operates as a nonprofit? Both for-profit and nonprofit colleges offer post-secondary instruction and grant degrees. The main difference is in how each makes and spends their money. A for-profit college is exactly that—a higher education institution that operates as a business. Student tuition is used toward operating costs, and their primary goal is to make money. For-profit colleges are privately owned and operated by shareholders rather than an elected board of trustees.

Whether public or private, a traditional college or university is considered a nonprofit. An elected board of trustees oversees the school’s fiscal and operational functions. Almost all traditional colleges are evaluated by a federal accreditation agency every few years, meaning the institution must meet certain standards of academic quality, improvement, and accountability set forth by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a federal agency overseeing regional accreditation organizations. Not all for-profit colleges are accredited, however. This is important to keep this in mind since federal financial aid is often only awarded to students attending accredited higher education institutions.

Pros and cons of for-profit colleges

As with any school you research, it’s helpful to list the benefits and drawbacks so you can make an informed decision. Here are some pros and cons of earning your degree at a for-profit college.

Potential pros

  • Earning a degree takes less time: Unlike traditional colleges, where students spend anywhere from two to six years earning a degree, part of the draw of for-profit colleges is the opportunity to earn a degree and get a job in much less time. Programs vary among schools, but most students at for-profit schools earn their diplomas in approximately 18 months.
  • Degrees offered for in-demand occupations: Tech, IT, cybersecurity, and health care are among the most-needed fields right now. For-profit colleges know this and develop programs to meet the demand. A for-profit college might be a good option if you’re looking for a job in any of these fields.

Potential cons

  • Higher tuition rates: A for-profit college does award degrees, but its primary focus is making money; therefore, tuition is generally higher than that of a traditional college.
  • Harder to receive financial aid: Don’t count on a substantial financial aid package to help with tuition costs. Many for-profit colleges do not meet this accreditation criteria for federal aid.
  • Fewer resources: Students at traditional colleges usually have resources like tutoring, career development, student activities, and counseling available to them. For-profit colleges are largely online, so many don’t offer these campus services.
  • Low rate of credit transfer: Many courses offered at for-profit colleges are highly specialized. It’s great to have specific knowledge in a certain industry, but it can be difficult to transfer credits should you choose to continue your education elsewhere.
  • High unemployment in many fields: For-profit colleges are aware of employment trends, and many of their programs lead to jobs in sought-after fields. However, not all for-profit programs are in marketable fields. Combine this with little to no job placement assistance, and a student might be looking at a long and frustrating job search.

Related: Why Private Nonprofit Colleges Cost Less Than You Think

If you’re looking for short-term education to build specific job-related skills, a for-profit school might fit your needs. But if you’re looking for a holistic college experience—complete with living on campus, getting involved in activities, conducting research, studying abroad, and having countless resources for life postgrad—a traditional nonprofit college might be a better fit. As always, research every school you’re considering and weigh the pros and cons before deciding.

Start exploring and comparing for-profit and nonprofit institutions using our College Search tool!

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About Sara Karnish

Sara Karnish is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. 


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