For-profit Colleges: Are They Worth It? How They Work, Pros & Cons, Best Schools

Choosing a college is one of the most important, life determining decisions you will make in your life. Whether you are fresh out of high school, an adult who never went to college, or a professional looking for an added degree, choosing a higher education institution is not a lightly made decision.

You can choose from many types of colleges: 2-year schools (junior or community colleges).  4-year schools (colleges and universities), trade schools, and online schools, among others. One newer type of college to consider is a for-profit college.

These privately run colleges offering a career-focused education with accompanying degrees can be polarizing. Many students have had great experiences that furthered their careers.  However, one can also easily find examples of disreputable or poorly run for-profit colleges that have created mountains of debt for students without providing much economic benefit.

So, what is the truth about for-profit colleges? Like most things in life, what you hear about these colleges is neither entirely true nor entirely untrue. There are pros and cons to for-profit colleges. Before deciding whether or not one is right for you, you have to do your research to seek out the best fit.

Here we will discuss what you need to know about for-profit colleges. We will talk about what they are and how they work, lay out the pros and cons of these types of institutions, and discuss for which students and situations they might be appropriate.


What is a for-profit College?

The easiest definition of for-profit colleges is right there in the name. A for-profit college is a college that is run like a business with the intent of making a profit for owners or shareholders. These colleges offer a range of curriculum and degrees for a price just like a traditional college, but the schools take out profits for stakeholders instead of reinvesting all funds back into the institution.

This can sometimes be seen as a negative and, in certain cases, it can be. As with any industry, there are good and bad businesses within that industry. Stories of some for-profit colleges putting profits above all else make the news, but you will also find plenty of schools that know the best way to make a profit as a business is to provide a high-quality service at a fair price.

Other hallmarks of for-profit colleges are that they are often online and many are very focused on specific career tracks. You will find that many for-profit colleges that focus on curriculum related to in-demand fields such as business, technology, health care, criminal justice, education, or culinary arts. Often, they also offer degrees to non-traditional students who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for traditional 4-year colleges.


For-Profit Colleges Versus Online Colleges

An online college is simply that, a college that offers courses exclusively online. While many for-profit colleges do fit into the online college category, not all do. A number of for-profit colleges offer in-person learning and have physical locations. Likewise, some online colleges are for-profit while others are not-for-profit. These days, most traditional colleges offer some level of online courses but often not for full degrees.

For-profit and online colleges share many similarities. They both offer a college education for people who, due to busy schedules or physical location, would not otherwise be able to earn a degree. Both types of colleges available run the gamut from well-respected, accredited colleges to ones where the degrees are far less valuable.

If you are looking for an online college to attend, it is good to include for-profit colleges in your search. Like all decisions on higher education, knowing what you are looking for and performing careful research will make all the difference.


Benefits of for-profit Colleges


Every for-profit college is slightly (or significantly) different. Like businesses in any industry, they all have specific aspects that set them apart from traditional colleges and from each other. What many have in common is that they offer some of the same benefits to certain students. Here are the benefits of for-profit colleges.


Scheduling Flexibility

This is the number one point for-profit college students cite when asked about the advantages of these types of schools. Many people’s lives are incredibly hectic, precluding certain people from getting a higher education. Many people simply don’t have the time or work schedule to physically attend classes at a traditional college.

Many for-profit colleges offer options like online classes and night classes that work for students with busy schedules. For students who also need to work full-time or raise children or are caregivers to family members, this is an incredible option that many traditional colleges just don’t provide.

Courses at for-profit colleges are often self-guided which makes them even more convenient and flexible for busy people. The lectures and readings are provided and students can watch, listen, and read at their own convenience, not on their professor’s schedule. Students can take tests and hand in papers when they have time which is a big difference from many other colleges, even for non-profit online colleges.

Because for-profit colleges are businesses, they offer scheduling flexibility to attract more customers. This is a common theme you will see throughout this benefits section. These businesses offer options customers want in order to attract new customers and cater to ones that are not well served by traditional institutions of higher education.


Enroll in and Take Classes from Anywhere

Along with time flexibility, for-profit colleges also offer location flexibility. These colleges allow students to enroll from anywhere, without restriction. This is a huge benefit for the many students who can’t commute or live on campus at a traditional college.

The reasons why people are not able to physically attend college classes are many. Some people may live in remote or rural areas without a nearby physical college. Other students may be homebound for a host of reasons. These students perhaps have physical limitations, anxiety when in large groups, or responsibility, as mentioned above, for a child or elder person or a work schedule that makes it difficult to travel to a location.

Being able to enroll and take classes from anywhere also offers the opportunity for students outside the United States to take part in higher education. Whether a student is from a different country or is just traveling abroad, being located within the country is no longer a requirement with for-profit colleges. All you need is the desire and a good internet connection.


Easy Admission Process

Easy Admission

The standard college admissions process can be difficult.  It involves writing college essays, requesting recommendation letters, obtaining transcripts, taking SAT and ACT tests, filling out an admission form, showing qualifications and applying for financial aid along with other steps. Some colleges will tell you that this process is of vital importance because it shows how hardworking and diligent you are and how much you want to attend college. Others will tell you the only thing these tasks measure is how well you can fill out forms.

Like most of what for-profit colleges do, their goal is to make things as easy as possible for people to get a higher education. For this reason, the application process is very easy for most students. There are few requirements and the admission process is straightforward without piles of forms to fill out. Every for-profit college is slightly different but most only require a high school diploma or GED to apply.

The ease of the for-profit college application process goes beyond just the paucity of requirements and the simplicity of admission forms, though. Many for-profit colleges have recruiters whose job is to go out and help potential students apply. While almost all colleges of any type have recruiters, the for-profit college recruiters are more like salespeople. Their job is to get people to come to college, so they will gladly help prospective students apply.


Get Training While Working

One, if not the single biggest, reason people put off or opt-out of attending college is that they have to work. People have to make money to support themselves, support their family, or simply to have money to buy the things they want and need. Unfortunately, going to college full-time does not lend itself to continuing to make a living while taking classes.

Attending a for-profit college allows you to continue to earn an income as you go to school to further your education and, hopefully, improve your earning power. One reason this is possible is because of the scheduling flexibility mentioned above. These colleges offer all types of online, weekend, and off-hours classes that help you continue to work a 9-to-5 job while attending school.

Another reason it is relatively easy to continue to work while attending a for-profit college is that most for-profit colleges don’t have many prerequisites or liberal arts classes that don’t have anything to do with your degree. Most of these colleges are focused on training people in very specific fields (more on that below). That means you won’t have to waste time on English, Science, or Math classes if those subjects don’t relate to your degree. It is much easier to work and go to school at the same time when everything you do focuses on the end goal.


For-profit Colleges Focus on Competency-Based Training

Many for-profit colleges these days are increasingly focused on competency-based training. This means two different things to students. One is that the classes students take are focused on developing the skills needed to get a desired job. The other is that the requirements for passing a course aren’t necessarily about how much time you spend in a classroom (real or online); these colleges let you move on as soon as you demonstrate the competence of a certain skill.

Focusing on specific jobs and offering competency-based training for these jobs means that companies know graduates will be trained in the specific skills needed in the industry. Because of this, many for-profit colleges have developed partnerships with companies in the industries for which they offer training. Many graduates are hooked up with these companies upon gaining their degrees and have a leg up on the competition for getting jobs in their desired industries.

This is a win-win situation for everyone involved. The colleges get to trumpet the fact that they put students in their chosen industries. Students get the job they want when they set out to get a degree and companies get properly trained workers who have the skills companies most need.

The other way competence-based training benefits students is that it puts a premium on practical learning instead of listening and reading and studying. For-profit colleges aren’t trying to keep students for a set amount of time, so when a student can demonstrate competence in a necessary skill, they can move to the next level. This is a great way to reward and speed up the path to a degree for students who already have real-world work experience in their chosen field.


Most Classes Are Available Online 

Online Classes

This has been mentioned as a benefit a few times here but in 2020, this has become more of a stand-alone benefit than ever before. When the COVID-19 virus hit earlier in the year, colleges all over the world had to scramble to figure out how to finish the year and continue providing classes when they couldn’t have students on campus. For-profit colleges didn’t have this issue; they continued with business as usual.

For-profit colleges have long been leaders in tele-education, online education, and distance learning. Even in situations where for-profit college students were physically going to school, these colleges already offered most of their classes online so it was an easy transition. Learning could continue even as classroom learning ground to a halt.

Going forward, this characteristic is even more of an advantage for these types of colleges. Many traditional colleges are limiting class size, scaling back services, and fundamentally changing the way they teach students. For-profit colleges do not need to make such adjustments. As we reach the end of 2020 with the future of education still very much in the air, the education model that for-profit colleges have used for a long time is looking better, safer, and more efficient than ever.


Get trained in emerging fields 

The best businesses are agile and adaptable and change quickly with the evolving marketplace. These businesses don’t stick with old, outdated products and services that don’t sell. They can’t. They would go out of business. The best businesses keep up with trends and are constantly evolving and innovating their offerings to better serve their clients’ needs. This is what for-profit colleges do for students, too.

These colleges have always been on the cutting-edge of the type of degrees they offer because they have to do so if they wish to attract new students and survive. If these colleges were still teaching courses in print media or direct mail marketing, students wouldn’t be interested. Offering classes in the latest in digital and online fields is what draws students in.

This practice also dovetails nicely with the for-profit college mission of offering competence-based education. Where are the jobs of tomorrow? They are in developing industries and those industries that have a history of rapid change. These are the industries that are the focus of for-profit colleges, which is why many graduates have an easier time finding jobs in new and exciting fields than graduates of traditional colleges.


Limited Number of Prerequisites

This is another area where you can see the benefits of working with a business versus an educational institution. Many colleges and universities attract students by creating a reputation for being hard to gain admittance. Just like the hottest nightclub, these colleges only allow select students through their gates, which makes more students want to try to get in.

The truth is, though, that the vast majority of students entering for-profit colleges aren’t the type of students who have the credentials to get into these colleges. In fact, some students – for a variety of reasons – may not have the credentials to get into any traditional college.

Most traditional colleges look for prerequisites like high grades, high SAT scores, significant extracurricular activities, and more. If you have these elements, you are golden. If not, college can seem unattainable. Many people who struggled in high school or didn’t take the SAT, or had to work to help support the family instead of playing soccer and being class president can find acceptance at for-profit colleges.

Just because a student either didn’t take school seriously when younger or dealt with difficult circumstances that made achieving these prerequisites difficult doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve a higher education. This is where for-profit colleges come in.

These schools don’t have an exclusive reputation to worry about, they want to provide a service and profit from it. So they don’t require all these prerequisites to take classes. If any person is interested in furthering their education and working towards a degree, a for-profit college will let them. If you can pay for the classes or get a student loan to cover them, that is all you need do to become a college student.


For-profit Schools Are Great for Military Veterans

For as long as for-profit colleges have been in existence, they have served our men and women in uniform. When people who serve in the military get out and begin their civilian life, the U.S. government provides funds for these veterans to get an education so they can get good jobs. They do this through programs like the GI Bill and the Department of Defense Tuition Assistance program.

A good portion of both of these programs is historically put to use in for-profit education circumstances because the fit between veterans and these types of schools are great. Veterans are older than the typical college-age student.  Many have a goal of developing specific skills and getting a degree as quickly as possible so they can start their post-military career. With competency-based programs and industry connections, for-profit colleges are a perfect match for these types of students.

These colleges also offer programs in many of the fields where military service is a great asset, or even a prerequisite. Military personnel often get training in the latest technology, health care, or law enforcement. Many for-profit colleges specialize in these fields, so it makes great sense for veterans to attend these schools.


Disadvantages of for-profit Colleges

For-profit colleges offer many benefits for students.  However, there are also some downsides to these higher learning institutions. Here are a few disadvantages students may find when looking into or attending a for-profit college.


Not All Employers Recognize Certificates & Diplomas

As discussed above, many for-profit colleges have partnerships with companies that like to hire employees with degrees from these institutions. However, some companies and even large parts of certain industries, don’t accept certificates or diplomas from these institutions as a prerequisite for being hired.

Industries like finance or higher education may require a degree from a traditional, four-year school to get a job or even just an interview with the organizations. When plotting your career path, make sure the industry you are interested in recognizes degrees’ from for-profit colleges. Many of these colleges have career counselors who can help you determine if the job you want will accept this type of accreditation.


Limited Student Support

If you want to roll up to the school tailgate on Saturdays, put your school jersey on, and sit in the student section at the homecoming football game, for-profit colleges are probably not for you. One of the biggest drawbacks to these types of institutions is the lack of the “traditional college experience” that you get at other schools.

Since most of these schools don’t have the typical campuses or offer on-campus housing, they simply can’t compete with what some people view as the typical college life. There are no dorms or student life offices. There are no fraternities or sororities or other on-campus programs you will find at traditional schools. And, because many students are working while attending school, you also won’t find much in the way of peer tutoring or other interactions with fellow students. If these social aspects of college are highly important to you, a non-profit college might suit you better.


Not Necessarily Cheaper Than Regular Colleges

This determination all depends on what you are comparing but, for the most part, the actual education price of for-profit colleges is higher, on average, than that of not for-profit schools. This is just factoring in tuition at one type of school versus tuition at the other type. When you consider the other expenses of traditional colleges, such as room and board and meal plans, the total cost with those included is generally higher.

If the for-profit school is accredited by the Department of Education (which many are), you can use student loans, grants, and other means, such as the GI Bill, to help or even cover the full cost of expenses at these schools. For-profit colleges usually have very strong financial aid departments that can show students how to cover the higher tuition fees.


Hard to Figure Out Which For-Profit University is Good for You

For-Profit University

One more downside of for-profit colleges and universities is that there are so many of them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 3,000 for-profit schools are operating in the United States. This can make it difficult for students to determine which institution is right for them.

The only real way to decide this is to perform some research, just as you would for any non-profit school. Put together a list of elements you want in a school – things like the field you want, the time you have, how quickly you want to finish, and your budget – and start researching different options. When you know exactly what you are seeking, it is easier to wade through the daunting number of options in the world of for-profit colleges.


When a For-profit School Is an Excellent Choice

Hopefully, this definition, comparison, and list of the pros and cons have been helpful to anyone considering this type of institution for their educational needs. It is meant to help people who are trying to make a decision and also illustrate that while for-profit colleges are an excellent choice for some, they might not be as good a choice for others. To help even more with this very important decision, here are a few types of students for whom for-profit colleges can be an excellent choice.


Non-Traditional Students

A traditional student is usually considered one who attends grades K-12 uninterrupted and goes right into a 2- or 4-year school based on grades, activities, and having achieved a high school diploma. If this was not your path through school, you may be a non-traditional student and a for-profit college could be an excellent choice for you.

Some students do not take this standard path through school. Some students drop out, take time off, or who just never finish high school and get a GED instead. These students are often frozen out of typical higher education institutions or may be required to go back and take many prerequisite classes just to be accepted.

This is why for-profit colleges are so great for non-traditional students. All that most of this type of college requires is a high school diploma or GED and a desire to earn a higher education. These schools don’t judge you on your past; they just care about your future.


Working Students

Working Students

If you work part-time, full-time, or multiple jobs and want to get a college degree to better your career prospects and increase your salary, for-profit colleges can also be a good choice. These colleges are incredibly flexible and offer classes online, at night, or over weekends that work with a busy schedule. Because these schools are businesses, they understand how working people operate and offer a variety of ways to learn.

Many of these competence-based colleges don’t require a set amount of classroom time.  As soon as you master a concept or skill, you can move on to the next step. This is even better for working people who have already developed certain skills in their careers. You don’t have to waste time sitting through a lecture on something you already know how to do. This is incredibly valuable to people working 40-plus hours a week to make a living.


Students Who Know What They Want

If you are a student who is planning on going to college with an undeclared major or who might change your field of study multiple times over the course of your college career, a for-profit college may not be for you. If you have a career path in mind, are focused on a certain field, and know what type of job you want when you get out, a for-profit school can be an excellent choice.

Colleges that operate in a for-profit manner usually focus on specific industries and career paths. You are not going to get a wide sampling of classes to decide what you want to do with your life, but you will get a curriculum focused on gaining skills and getting a job in a number of in-demand industries that may interest you. If you are this type of career-focused person, for-profit colleges can be a very smart choice.


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