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Are For-Profit Colleges Worth the Cost?

Andrew Tavin, CFEI
Andrew Tavin is a personal finance writer who covered budgeting with expertise in building credit and saving for OppU. His work has been cited by Wikipedia, Crunchbase, and Hacker News, and he is a Certified Financial Education Instructor through the National Financial Educators Council.
Read time: 4 min
Updated on February 23, 2022
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If you're thinking about getting a degree from a for-profit university, make sure that you do a lot of research—and talk to some graduates of that school—before doing so.

A college degree is often seen as a requirement for achieving the American Dream. But is it actually? Well, that depends on what you consider the American Dream to be. Statistically, just having a bachelor’s degree gives you access to a much higher earning potential and a much lower rate of unemployment.

But while having some sort of degree feels less optional than ever, there are more options to get a post-high school education than ever before. In addition to traditional, non-profit four-year programs, there are trade schools, apprenticeships, and community colleges.

There are also for-profit colleges, which have gotten a bad reputation after a seemingly endless series of new stories revealing controversy and corruption within various for-profit college institutions. So how exactly do for-profit colleges work, and are they an option worth considering?

Let’s find out!

For-profit colleges: What are they?

On a basic level, for-profit universities are exactly what they sound like. Similarly to non-profit schools, for-profit universities offer classes that culminate in a degree. And as the name suggests, they also have owners or shareholders who derive a profit from the tuition the school charges.

A non-profit school’s main goal is, theoretically, providing a quality education. The ultimate goal of a for-profit school, as is the case with all for-profit business, is to make money.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a for-profit school couldn't offer a good education. After all, if a school can prove that it offers a good education and a degree that leads to a prosperous career, one can imagine more students would choose that school, leading to more tuition fees which would lead to more profits.

However, as anyone who has tried to talk to a cable company on the phone will tell you, for-profit companies do not always see providing the best service as the ideal means to making the most profit.

For-profit colleges: The scandals and corruption.

Before we touch upon the long and extensive patterns of corruption, scandal, and grifting within the for-profit college system, it’s only fair that we acknowledge that non-profit universities have had centuries of scandals of their own.

From deadly Ivy League football games to recent Full House-adjacent admissions scandals, “traditional” schools are the source of many newsworthy controversies as well as a major part of the more mundane, but more impactful, student debt crisis.

That being said, for-profit colleges are far more likely to have fraud claims lodged against them. Many of these schools have been found to mislead potential students by providing false or misleading statistics about their students’ job prospects and utilizing “hard sell” tactics to pressure potential students into signing up for courses that might not be worth the money they’ll be paying for them.

Remember how we said that a company can earn more profits by providing a better service than its competitors? It turns out they can also make a higher profit by deceiving potential customers, especially when the organizations that are supposed to be regulating them start choosing not to do so.

For-profit schools will also specifically target veterans and poor people in an effort to get more public funding, in addition to encouraging students to take out excessive loans they might never be able to pay off.

For-profit colleges: Should you consider them?

Given all of this negative information we just dropped on you, you may be wondering if for-profit colleges are ever worth considering. We wouldn’t say you should never consider them, but you should be incredibly cautious.

For-profit schools close often and abruptly, so a school without an established background is likely too risky to consider. You’ll want to do a lot of research and, ideally, speak to successful graduates of the program. If you can’t find any successful graduates to speak to, that’s probably a bad sign.

Above all, take your time and do your due diligence. Don’t get pressured into anything, especially taking on a lot of debt you may be left with no way to pay off.

Of course, many people can’t just choose a prestigious non-profit university to attend. If your dad was Greg Harvard—of Harvard fame—you probably wouldn’t be here reading this article.

If a “traditional” college is out of your reach and for-profit colleges are too risky, what options are you left with? Trade schools are a good option for many workers: They’re tailored towards teaching a specific skill, which means that they’re more affordable and require less of a time commitment than a four-year school. Unfortunately, trade schools have their own sets of scams, so you’ll have to be wary and do your research.

Community college may also be right for you! It’s cheaper and can be a path to transferring to a four-year school, or a means to a good education and career all on its own.

Regardless of what options you’re considering, it should be clear by now that there is some advice that will apply no matter which educational options you’re considering. Just to reiterate, you’ll want to talk to graduates, conduct as much research as possible, and do your full due diligence before you even begin to think about taking out any loans.

Now put on your study cap and start reading up on your educational possibilities!

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