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What exactly is a for-profit college?

Find out what happens when a corporation and university join forces.

Updated

For-profit colleges are usually designed for students pursuing a specific career or trade. But they can be more expensive than public, nonprofit options. And if they’re not accredited, you’ll have a hard time qualifying for federal student aid.

What is a for-profit college?

Unlike nonprofit private and public schools, for-profit colleges are set up as corporations. They usually have a CEO and shareholders — with the main goal being to turn a profit. This can cause other areas such as graduation rates, retention and course quality to suffer, since they’re not the primary focus.

For-profit colleges also typically use different accrediting bodies than nonprofit schools, which can make it difficult to transfer courses between the two. And if a for-profit school is struggling to maintain accreditation, it can cause them to lose access to government-issued financial aid for their students, including federal loans, grants and work-study.

4 popular for-profit schools in the US

Below are some of the top for-profit schools in the US:

  • University of Phoenix. Offering both online and classroom courses, the University of Phoenix has over 100,000 students enrolled in over 100 different programs. However, the school has faced criticism over the years due to deceptive enrollment practices and fraudulent use of financial aid funds.
  • DeVry University. With over 45 campuses and thousands of students nationwide, DeVry University is another big name in for-profit colleges. While they offer a lot of programs, they’ve also had issues with regulatory bodies and have been involved in multiple lawsuits.
  • Universal Technical Institute. For students interested in mechanics, Universal Technical Institute could be a good option. The school specializes in automotive, diesel, motorcycle, marine and collision repair programs, though they’re costly compared to programs at traditional schools.
  • Colorado Technical University (CTU). Founded as a vocational school for former military members, Colorado Technical University caters to service members looking to transition to civilian life more easily through education. Most programs are completed online since the college only has two campuses — both in Colorado.

How much does it cost to go to a for-profit college?

Unfortunately, for-profit colleges tend to be more expensive than public schools. Though private, notnprofit colleges normally take the cake when it comes to the highest total cost.

Here’s the average annual cost of attendance for the 2017-2018 academic year at different types of schools, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Type of schoolAnnual cost of attendance
2-year public college$3,600 per year
2-year for-profit college$14,200 per year
2-year private nonprofit college$17,800 per year
4-year public college$9,000 per year
4-year for-profit college$17,000 per year
4-year private nonprofit college$34,600 per year

Is a for-profit college right for me?

Weigh the benefits and drawbacks of attending a for-profit college to help guide your decision.

Benefits of attending a for-profit college

  • Flexible course schedules
  • Caters to non-traditional students
  • Online courses and programs
  • Training for specific trades
  • Condensed and accelerated programs

Risks of attending a for-profit college

  • Possible accreditation issues
  • Higher cost than public schools
  • Can’t qualify for federal aid if it’s not accredited
  • Fewer student support services
  • Limited access to campus life and student activities

For-profit vs. nonprofit colleges: How they compare

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Bottom line

For-profit colleges are ideal if you’re pursuing a trade or profession that doesn’t require a traditional college degree. But they’re not always the cheapest option out there. And they can be risky if they’re not accredited.

Decide on a school, but not sure how to pay for it? Compare your options with our guide to student loans.

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