Who Profits? Students’ Experiences at For-Profit Colleges

January 31, 2023

Home Reports & Resources Who Profits? Students’ Experiences at For-Profit Colleges

Executive Summary

For-profit colleges’ have generated regulatory scrutiny and litigation because of their recruitment tactics, graduation rates, costs and loan default rates. Compared to public higher education institutions, for-profit colleges have been criticized for being more expensive with similar or worse job market outcomes for graduates, who tend to be left with higher debt. They enroll relatively high proportions of Black and Latino students, but too often leave those students in debt and without degrees. 

This research explores the experiences and perspectives of for-profit college attendees based on a representative survey of 595 alumni, currently enrolled students, and non-completers fielded from March 17 to May 31, 2022, and focus groups with those populations. The research includes a comparison sample of 406 students currently enrolled at public community colleges, which tend to serve populations similar to those of for-profit colleges. 

Findings in Brief: 

  • Just one-third of for-profit college attendees prioritized affordability when choosing a college, yet few of them believe that cost is an indicator of quality in higher education. Only 23 percent of for-profit college attendees believe that more expensive colleges provide a better education. Yet fewer for-profit attendees (58 percent) than community college students (74 percent) say they paid a great deal of attention to information about affordability when considering college. And only 32 percent of them prioritized affordability when deciding where to enroll, compared to 59 percent of community college students. 
  • Few for-profit attendees applied to more than one college. Just over half say they learned about college through sources provided by or controlled by colleges themselves, such as advertisements or college websites. Those who spoke to recruiters gave mixed reviews. Eighty-three percent of for-profit college attendees say they did not apply to or seriously consider more than one college. Nineteen percent of them used interactive websites that allowed them to rank and compare colleges. But at least 60 percent of them say they learned about colleges from sources provided by or controlled by colleges themselves, including advertising, colleges’ websites, or recruiters. Among the 29 percent of for-profit attendees who spoke with a recruiter, reviews were mixed. Thirty-nine percent say the recruiter helped them understand how to apply to college, but 40 percent also say recruiters pressured them to enroll. 
  • Most for-profit college attendees express satisfaction with their college overall. But alumni and non-completers express criticism when asked about specifics such as academics, work experience, and student services. Current students are less critical. Most for-profit attendees (83 percent) are generally satisfied with their college. But when asked about specifics—such as academics, work experience, and student services—about 40 percent or more for-profit alumni and non-completers say their school fell short on making tutors available, providing internships and work experience, career services or job placement, and health services. A smaller percentage of current students say their college falls short on these or other attributes.
  • Compared to community college students, more for-profit college attendees rely on loans to pay for college. Fewer use savings or earnings. Most for-profit alumni and non-completers with loans say that making payments is difficult. But fewer current students with loans anticipate difficulty paying. Sixty percent of for-profit attendees report relying on student loans to pay for college, compared to only 28 percent of community college students. Fewer for-profit attendees (26 percent) than community college students (48 percent) rely on savings or earnings. Among for-profit attendees who have loans, 63 percent of alumni and 78 percent of non-completers say that making payments is difficult. But only 44 percent of current for-profit students with loans expect making payments to be difficult, indicating they may be underestimating their future debt or overestimating their future earnings.
  • Few for-profit alumni believe that getting their degree was worth the cost. Half of alumni believe their college prioritized profits over students, although only about one-third of current students and non-completers believe so. Prior to enrolling in their college, 66 percent of for-profit alumni were confident that it would greatly improve their job prospects. But only 38 percent of for-profit alumni say their degree was worth the cost, while 37 percent say it was not and the rest say it remains to be seen. Although 53 percent of for-profit alumni feel their college cared more about making money than educating students, only 33 percent of current for-profit students and 30 percent of non-completers feel that way.
  • People who started but did not complete degrees at for-profits—and never subsequently completed degrees elsewhere—largely say they stopped attending for personal reasons rather than blaming the college itself. Most say that not completing has affected them negatively. Few plan to pursue degrees in the near future. Most for-profit non-completers (62 percent) say they stopped attending because of personal or family responsibilities and 30 percent because of job responsibilities. Another 27 percent say they stopped attending because they could not afford it. But 12 percent say that the college shut down and 6 percent say that it lost accreditation. Only 5 percent left because their college was not providing a good education. Seventy-one percent of for-profit non-completers experienced at least one negative effect of not finishing. For example, 41 percent say that not completing has made them depressed or anxious, 33 percent say it made them feel discouraged about enrolling elsewhere, and 30 percent say it has made it more difficult to afford enrolling. Only 16 percent of non-completers say they will definitely enroll in a degree or certificate program again in the next two years.
  • Few for-profit attendees support punishing schools with low graduation rates, high debt loads, or poor career outcomes. Instead, they support requiring those colleges to improve and do more to support students. When asked about higher education in general, 70 percent of for-profit attendees express strong concern about high debt loads, while 41 percent express strong concern about poor career outcomes and 35 percent express strong concern about low completion rates. When asked how to address colleges that have consistently high debt loads, poor career outcomes, and low graduation rates, few for-profit attendees believe that federal financial aid should be withheld or that colleges should be closed or lose accreditation. More favor requiring those colleges to publicly report outcomes, make plans to improve, and provide students with counseling and other forms of support. 

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Methodology in Brief

This report summarizes survey findings from representative samples of 595 adult Americans 18 years and older for-profit college attendees and 406 adults enrolled in community college. The for-profit attendees sample includes representative subsamples of alumni who completed their degrees or certificates at for-profit colleges within fifteen years of survey fielding (N=272); students currently enrolled at for-profit colleges at the time of fielding (N=235); and non-completers i.e., people who started a degree or certificate at a for-profit college within fifteen years of fielding, did not complete their degree or certificate at that college and never subsequently completed elsewhere (N=88). A separate report summarizes findings from a representative survey of 217 alumni of online degree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges. The survey was designed by Public Agenda and fielded March 17 to May 31, 2022, by SSRS. Respondents completed the survey online in English and Spanish.

To confirm the type of higher education institution that respondents were attending or had attended, Public Agenda used IPEDS data from 2014 to 2020 to build a list of private for-profit institutions, public four-year institutions, public two-year institutions (community colleges), and private non-profit institutions. This list was programmed into the online survey instrument. Respondents chose the institution they had attended or were attending from the list and were counted toward the appropriate sample quota. Respondents who did not choose any of the institutions on the list had the option to enter an open-ended response and answer survey questions; Public Agenda then reviewed and categorized the institution they had named so that SSRS could assign them to the appropriate sample or remove their data.

The margin of error for the 595 for-profit enrollees is ± 7.3 percentage points. The margin of error for the 406 current community college students is ± 8.1 percentage points. Margins of error for subgroups are larger.

The sample was randomly drawn from SSRS’s online probability panel and from online non-probability panels. SSRS weighted the probability completes using standard base weight adjustments and raking to external demographic benchmarks and then used hybrid calibration procedures to blend the probability and non-probability samples.

Before designing the survey, Public Agenda conducted three demographically diverse online focus groups in October 2021 with for-profit alumni, current students, and non-completers. Focus group recruiters confirmed that participants were attending or had attended a for-profit college based on a list of institutions built by Public Agenda from IPEDS data.

When referencing this report, cite Public Agenda. This research is supported by Arnold Ventures. For a complete methodology and topline with full question wording, click here please contact research@publicagenda.org.