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For-profit vs. nonprofit colleges: How do they compare?

We break down costs, accreditation and campus life to help you decide which is right for you.

Trying to decide what type of college is best for you? For-profit schools are ideal for students interested in a flexible course schedule or skills-based training. But if you’re looking for a more traditional college experience and degree program, nonprofit colleges are the way to go.

For-profit vs. nonprofit colleges at a glance

Below is a breakdown of how these two types of schools stack up against each other:

For-profit collegesPublic and private nonprofit colleges
Costs for tuition and fees per year*$16,449Public schools:

  • In state: $8,138
  • Out of state: $18,304

Private schools:

  • $27,063
AccreditationTypically nationally accredited — or not at allTypically regionally accredited
Eligible for federal student aid?Yes, for accredited collegesYes, for accredited colleges
Types of programs
  • 2-year programs
  • 4-year programs
  • Vocational or career-based programs
  • Certificates
Typically traditional degrees, including:

  • Associate
  • Bachelor’s
  • Master’s
  • Doctoral
Schedule flexibility
  • Flexible schedules
  • Online courses
  • Self-paced programs
  • Less flexibility
  • Online courses are limited
Campus life
  • Limited campus life due to flexible schedule options
  • Some schools operate solely online
  • Traditional campus life
  • Students can usually live on campus
  • Offers services to help students feel connected
  • Clubs and organizations sponsor campus activities

*Based on 2017-18 data from the National Center for Education Statistics

How do for-profit colleges work?

For-profit colleges are run by a CEO who must answer to shareholders. Because of this, they’re often more focused on making money than student experiences.


For-profit colleges can be more expensive than four-year in-state universities and can be significantly more expensive than community colleges. However, for-profit options can actually be less expensive than four-year private nonprofit colleges or out-of-state public universities.


Unfortunately, not all for-profit colleges are accredited and some have issues maintaining accreditation once they receive it.

If a for-profit school is accredited, it’s typically nationally accredited. This type of accreditation is usually saved for schools that are career or skills based, as opposed to regional accreditation that’s reserved for schools that offer a more comprehensive education. Because of this, it’s often difficult to transfer credits between schools with different types of accreditation.

Pay close attention to the accreditation of any college you’re considering. If it’s not accredited at all, it could be a warning sign that the for-profit school is a scam.

Eligibility for federal student aid

Accreditation is one of the main factors that affects a college’s eligibility for federal financial aid. Since for-profit colleges can struggle with accreditation, they can also have issues securing federal aid. This is another reason why you should check the accreditation of any school before you apply.

Types of programs

For-profit colleges generally offer trade-based programs, rather than traditional degrees. Programs are typically shorter, sometimes less than a year.

Schedule flexibility

Another potential benefit of for-profit schools is the option for a flexible schedule. Schedules are built to fit students with families or full-time jobs, and many often offer night and weekend classes. Some even have programs that are fully online and allow for self-paced courses.

Campus life

While some for-profit colleges offer traditional campus life such as dorm living and sporting events, most don’t. Because for-profit colleges offer flexible schedules or operate fully online, it can be difficult to create a traditional campus atmosphere.

Weigh the pros and cons of for-profit schools

How do nonprofit colleges work?

Nonprofit colleges are the more traditional route and include state universities, community colleges and private schools. They’re run by a board of trustees that make decisions based on the students’ best interests.


State universities and community colleges are typically much less expensive than for-profit schools. Private nonprofit universities are often the most expensive.


Most public and private nonprofit colleges are regionally accredited and don’t have issues maintaining accreditation. While strong accreditation upholds the validity of your credits, it also means the school is eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs.

Eligibility for federal student aid

Because most nonprofit schools are accredited, they’re eligible for federal student aid. Also, since nonprofit colleges have more traditional campus settings, they have more options for work-study programs.

Types of programs

Nonprofit colleges offer more traditional academic curriculums such as arts, sciences and mathematics. Programs are structured on associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral tracks.

Schedule flexibility

One downside to nonprofit colleges is that schedule flexibility is limited. Programs are typically semester based with specific start and end dates. There are little to no options for self-paced degrees.

Campus life

Social life at nonprofit campuses can include dorm living, campus activities, sporting events and school-sponsored organizations and clubs. Having a traditional campus life can help with student retention rates.

Which type of school is right for me?

Looking at your career goals, schedule flexibility and budget can help you decide which school is the right fit for you.

Consider a for-profit college if …

  • You want a trade or vocational degree.
  • You’re interested in a flexible schedule.
  • You want to complete your degree as quickly as possible through accelerated or self-paced courses.

Consider a nonprofit college if …

  • You’re interested in a traditional two- or four-year degree.
  • You want the cheapest option out there.
  • You’re looking for traditional campus life with dorms and sporting events.

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Bottom line

For-profit colleges can be risky — especially if they’re not accredited. But they can be helpful if you’re looking for a flexible course schedule or are interested in pursuing a trade-based career. On the flip side, nonprofit schools offer a more traditional college experience and can even be cheaper if you opt for an in-state public university.

Decide on a school? Check out our guide to student loans to explore options for how to pay for it.

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