Half of for-profit alumni believe their college prioritized profits over students, while only 38% believe their degree was worth the cost
A significant fraction of for-profit alumni and non-completers say their schools fell short on making tutors available, providing internships and work experience, career services, or job placement
Most for-profit alumni and non-completers with loans say that making payments is difficult
Only 38% of for-profit college alumni think getting their degree was worth it and 53% think their school cared more about making money than educating students, according to a new Public Agenda report on for-profit colleges and universities.
The report, supported by Arnold Ventures, features findings from a national survey that asked for-profit college attendees about their experiences, including their motivations for enrolling, level of satisfaction, personal outcomes, and whether their degree was worth the cost. This report also includes a comparison sample of community college students. The work builds on a repertoire of higher education research conducted by Public Agenda in its efforts to make postsecondary institutions work better for everyone.
“Democracy functions best when all of us have access to higher education that not only supports our efforts to become economically independent but also prepares us for active and effective citizenship,” said Andrew Seligsohn, President of Public Agenda. “Our research shows the for-profit college system is not serving students well. Until we ensure that all colleges and universities achieve the goal of increasing student learning and success, our democracy and our economy will suffer.”
“Every year, students and their families invest their time and treasure – and the federal government invests over $100 billion – in higher education. But for far too many students, these investments don’t pan out,” said Kelly McManus, Vice President of Education at Arnold Ventures. “This report will help policymakers hear directly from students about their experiences. It is abundantly clear we need stronger protections for students and taxpayers and need to demand more from our institutions of higher ed, especially in the for-profit sector.”
Highlights from the research include:
- Few for-profit alumni believe that getting their degree was worth the cost. Half of alumni believe their college prioritized profits over students: Prior to enrolling in their college, 66% of for-profit alumni were confident that it would greatly improve their job prospects. But only 38% of for-profit alumni say their degree was worth the cost, while 37% say it was not and the rest say it remains to be seen.
- Although 53% of for-profit alumni feel their college cared more about making money than educating students, only 33% of current for-profit students and 30% of non-completers (i.e. students who did not finish their degree) feel that way.
- Many for-profit college attendees say they learned about college through sources provided by or controlled by colleges themselves, such as advertisements, college websites, and recruiters. Those who spoke to recruiters gave mixed reviews: 83% of for-profit college attendees say they did not apply to or seriously consider more than one college.
- 60% say they learned about colleges from sources provided by or controlled by colleges themselves, including advertising, colleges’ websites, or recruiters.
- Among the 29% of for-profit attendees who spoke with a recruiter, reviews were mixed. 39% percent say the recruiter helped them understand how to apply to college, but 40% also say recruiters pressured them to enroll.
- For-profit alumni and non-completers are particularly critical of their colleges’ academics, work experience, and student services: 83% of for-profit attendees are generally satisfied with their college. However, when asked about specifics-such as academics, work experience, and student services-about 40% or more for-profit alumni and non-completers say their school fell short on making tutors available, providing internships and work experience, career services or job placement, and health services.
- A smaller percentage of for-profit current students say their college falls short on these attributes.
- Most for-profit alumni and non-completers with loans say that making payments is difficult: 55% of for-profit current students report relying on student loans to pay for college, compared to only 28% of current community college students.
- Fewer current for-profit students (26%) than current community college students (48%) rely on savings or earnings. Among for-profit attendees who have loans, 63% of alumni and 78% of non-completers say that making payments is difficult. But only 44% of current for-profit students with loans expect making payments to be difficult, indicating they may be underestimating their future debt or overestimating their future earnings.
- Few for-profit attendees support punishing schools with low graduation rates, high debt loads, or poor career outcomes. Instead, they support requiring those colleges to improve and do more to help students: When asked about higher education generally, 70% of for-profit attendees express strong concern about high debt loads, while 41% express strong concern about poor career outcomes and 35% express strong concern about low completion rates.
- When asked how to hold colleges accountable for high debt loads, poor career outcomes, or low graduation rates, few for-profit attendees believe that federal financial aid should be withheld (11% or less) or that colleges should be closed (8% or less) or lose accreditation (12% or less).
- More favor requiring underperforming colleges to publicly report outcomes (around 40%), make plans to improve (43% to 51%), and provide students with counseling and other forms of support (around 50%).
About Public Agenda
Public Agenda is a research-to-action nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining a stronger democracy. Through research, public engagement, and communications, we amplify public voice in institutional and government decision-making. The organization was founded in 1975 by the social scientist and public opinion research pioneer Dan Yankelovich and former secretary of state Cyrus Vance.
Methodology in Brief
This report summarizes survey findings from representative samples of 595 adult Americans 18 years and older who have attended a for-profit college and 406 adults enrolled in a community college. The for-profit attendees sample includes representative subsamples of alumni who completed their degrees at for-profit colleges within seven years of survey fielding (N=272); students currently enrolled at for-profit colleges at the time of fielding (N=235); non-completers i.e., people who who started a degree at a for-profit college within seven years of fielding, did not complete degrees at that college, and never subsequently completed degrees elsewhere (N=88). A separate report summarizes findings from a representative survey of 217 alumni of online degree programs at public and private non-profit colleges. The survey was designed by Public Agenda and fielded March 17 to May 31, 2022 by SSRS. Respondents completed the survey online in English and Spanish.
The margin of error for the 595 for-profit enrollees is ± 7.3 percentage points. The margin of error for the 406 community college students is ± 8.1 percentage points. Margins of error for subgroups are larger.