Home On the Agenda Public Agenda Announces New Partnership with Arnold Ventures

Public Agenda Announces New Partnership with Arnold Ventures

September 28, 2021

New Initiative to Explore Students’ Experiences with For-Profit Colleges and Online Degree Programs

Desk with e-learning class in session

Public Agenda is excited to announce a new research initiative supported by Arnold Ventures that includes two higher education projects. The first will study the experiences of students, alumni and people who started but did not complete their degrees at for-profit colleges. The second will investigate alumni’s experiences of online degree programs at public and non-profit institutions. The research explores questions crucial to understanding the degree to which the higher education landscape offers equitable opportunity to all Americans.

Many types of higher education institutions have been criticized for low graduation rates, costly tuition and predatory recruiting practices, with particular scrutiny directed at for-profit colleges.  For-profit institutions have also been criticized for their disproportionate impact on Black and Latino students and members of the military. Through surveys and focus groups, Public Agenda’s research will provide representative data on the views, voices and experiences of the people who have been enrolled in for-profit colleges — including their experiences with recruiting, teaching, financial aid, debt, and the job market.

Public Agenda will also be exploring alumni’s experiences with online degree programs at public and nonprofit institutions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many public and nonprofit colleges and universities offered degrees entirely online, and the popularity of those programs will likely continue to grow even as the pandemic slows. Understanding alumni’s experiences with online degree programs can help public and nonprofit institutions better meet students’ needs and aspirations.

The new partnership is a follow-up to research that Public Agenda released in 2014, supported by The Kresge Foundation, which sought to understand what students, alumni and employers thought about for-profit colleges and, separately, to explore how community college students and employers viewed online degree programs. Among the findings from the 2014 research were that two-thirds of students and alumni of for-profit colleges were unsure whether theirs was a for-profit institution or not. And only 39 percent of students at for-profit colleges said they had considered more than one school before enrolling.

“Since Public Agenda conducted our 2014 research, the Obama and Trump administrations have taken a variety of approaches to accountability and oversight of higher education institutions including for-profit institutions. But how have students’ experiences changed since that time?” says David Schleifer, VP of Research at Public Agenda, “Meanwhile, the scale of online learning has grown exponentially during the pandemic, creating both opportunities and risks for students. Hearing directly from learners about their experience with for-profit institutions and with online degree programs can give advocates and policymakers the insight and tools that they need to better students’ experiences.”

The research would generate recommendations for better protecting and meeting the needs of students. Strategic communications activities would bring the findings and recommendations to stakeholders such as state and federal policymakers, advocates, postsecondary education professionals, journalists, and those pursuing litigation regarding for-profit colleges.

Check out Public Agenda’s resources for more reports and info on higher education.


Jemilah Magnusson

Interim Communications Director