For students who would rather hone job skills than hurl
Frisbees, for-profit colleges offer an alternative to traditional
colleges. For-profits let you take tightly focused, career-related
programs; go to classes at night and on weekends to accommodate a
day job; and attend school year-round, picking up a degree or
certificate more efficiently than if you were on a two-semester
But for-profit colleges also come with a downside. They are more
expensive than public two-year and four-year programs, and most of
their students rely heavily on loans to cover the costs. Average
graduation rates for bachelor's degrees at for-profits fall well
short of public- and private-school rates. As for job training, the
promises made by recruiters don't always match reality.
Upshot: When it comes to a for-profit education, proceed with
caution. (You can find details on specific for-profits at
1. Compare prices.
You'd think that a school that skips the frills would be cheaper
than other programs, but that's not so: Tuition and fees at
for-profits approach $14,000 a year, about twice the in-state price
at four-year public colleges and more than five times the $2,713
average annual cost of two-year public colleges. Before you spring
for a for-profit program, check the alternatives, especially your
local community college, which likely offers job-oriented programs
and a flexible schedule on par with that of for-profit
2. Ask about graduation rates.
Only one in five students seeking a bachelor's degree at a
four-year for-profit succeeds within six years, according to the
Education Trust, an advocacy group. That track record compares
poorly with the record of public and nonprofit private schools,
which post six-year grad rates of 55% and 65%, respectively: Find
out how the program you're considering measures up before
committing to it. Also see that it includes at least some classroom
time. Online-only programs -- a hallmark of for-profits -- can be a
prescription for failure, says Kevin Kinser, a professor at SUNY
Albany who studies the for-profit-college industry. "More people
drop out of online programs."
3. Think twice about debt.
Virtually everyone who attends a for-profit college borrows to pay
the bills, and 42% of those graduating with bachelor's degrees
borrow more than $25,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, of
Finaid.org. Don't borrow a dime without researching your ability to
repay the money. Use the Loan Calculator at Finaid.org to find out
what your monthly payments would be according to various loan
amounts and interest rates. To get a sense of how other borrowers
manage at your college of choice, look at its default rate. Recent
data show that 25% of borrowers at for-profits default within three
years of entering repayment, nearly twice the average for borrowers
at other colleges.
4. Scope out job prospects.
You'll have trouble repaying your student loans if your program
doesn't lead to the kind of job you've been promised. Rather than
take an admissions recruiter's word at face value, visit
Payscale.com to look up average salaries in your prospective
profession, and ask employers about the likelihood of openings in
your field. As of July 2011, new regulations that defines "gainful
employment," give you another way to separate the real from the
spiel. The new rules require for-profit colleges to report former
students' debt relative to their income, and their progress in
paying down loan principal, both indications of whether the school
delivers on job promises. (Terms of the regulations are still being
5. Check accreditation.
Some for-profit colleges boast of national accreditation, but
public and nonprofit private colleges consider regional
accreditation, not national, to be the gold standard and typically
do not accept credits from colleges that lack that credential. If
you anticipate transferring or going on to grad school from a
for-profit, be sure it has earned accreditation by one of the six
regional accrediting agencies. Also investigate the requirements
for professional accreditation in your field and see whether the
for-profit program meets them.