For-profit colleges have recently made the news as predators against military personnel, their spouses and low income students.  I went into writing this week’s blog with the intention of warning students against for-profit colleges, but the more I learned, the less convinced I became that for-profit colleges are bad for the American higher education system.

The major difference between for-profit and not-for-profit schools is in their mission. For-profit schools are backed by investors and operate like any other business in our capitalist society in that once expenses are paid, profits are disbursed to investors.  At not-for-profit schools, profits are put back into the school to pay for things such as athletic facilities, faculty research, scholarships and campus development.  Both for-profit and not-for-profit colleges offer a variety of programs and degrees, are able to apply for accreditation from the U.S. Department of Education and, if accredited, can award federal financial aid to their students.  Regardless of how profits are spent, both depend on a minimum number of students to attend, paying tuition, in order to stay in operation. All of this is reasonable, so why do for-profit colleges have such a bad rap?

The main critics of for-profit colleges look at them as preying on low income students- burying them in debt that they cannot possibly pay back. According to a Campus Progress report “For-profit schools currently serve 10 percent of U.S. students but account for 25 percent of federal student aid- and nearly half of student loan defaults”. This statement certainly raised concern for me at first, but if you look into the structure of many for-profit colleges, you will not find many liberal arts degrees that teach students to think, but instead career-focused programs designed to help students gain real-world skills and training.  Their programs are more flexible than those offered at traditional universities with many evening and weekend courses that allow students to work full-time as they earn their degree.

With this in mind, it is not hard to see why this type of school would appeal to person of lower income who does not have the luxury to take 4 years off work to attend a traditional university.  It may be that a for-profit college program is the only option for non-traditional students to receive the training or degree needed to advance their career.

Is it a risk to admit these students? Yes.  Working full time and going to school will be too much for some and they will drop out.  Without earning the degree they set out to earn, their income will not increase and they will likely default on their loan.

Should these students not be given the chance to earn their degree in the first place?  I don’t think so.  A student’s ability to pay, or risk of them defaulting on a loan in the future, should not lock them out of the chance to earn a degree.

I will admit that the concept of for-profit colleges is still relatively new and has grown significantly over the past decade with little oversight.  And as in any business there has been corruption in the race to share in profits, but in time these bad seeds will be weeded out.  But responsibility needs to also be put on the student to research the college they plan to attend (for-profit or not-for-profit) to ensure that it is the best fit for them before applying.

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