Online degree programs were common even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the fall of 2019, about 18 percent of undergraduates were enrolled in what the U.S. Department of Education calls exclusively distance education courses. A disproportionate share of students studying online were enrolled in for-profit colleges. For-profit college students represented only 5 percent of all undergraduates that semester but nearly 63 percent of them were enrolled in exclusively distance education, compared to 13 percent of undergraduates at public nonprofit colleges and 21 percent of those at private nonprofit colleges.
Students will continue to choose online programs even as COVID-19 abates, raising the possibility that more people may enroll in for-profit colleges. To help understand whether nonprofit public and private colleges better serve online learners than for-profit colleges do, and to inform efforts to protect all students, this research compares the perspectives of alumni of online degree programs at nonprofit colleges versus alumni of online degree programs at for-profits. Findings are based on a representative survey of 217 nonprofit online alumni and 169 for-profit online alumni fielded March 17 to May 31, 2022.
Key Findings in Brief
More nonprofit than for-profit online alumni are satisfied with their colleges. Most online alumni of nonprofits were very satisfied (70 percent) with their college, while just 48 percent of for-profit online alumni were very satisfied. When asked about specific attributes of their college—such as providing effective guidance, making tutors available, and having good instructors—more for-profit than nonprofit online alumni counterparts say their college fell short. The only attribute of their schools that more nonprofit than for-profit online alumni say their college fell short on was helping with financial aid.
Half of for-profit online alumni believe that their school prioritized profits. Two-thirds of nonprofit online alumni believe that their school prioritized students. Sixty-nine percent of nonprofit online alumni say their school prioritized educating students while 31 percent say it prioritized making money. By comparison, 50 percent of for-profit online program alumni say their school prioritized students and 50 percent say it prioritized money.
More nonprofit than for-profit online alumni think their degree has paid off. More for-profit online alumni with loans say that making payments is difficult. Majorities of both nonprofit and for-profit alumni say they were confident before enrolling that their degree would improve their job prospects. But that majority was stronger among nonprofit online alumni (78 percent) than among their for-profit counterparts (61 percent). Just 39 percent of for-profit online alumni believe that getting their degree was worth it compared to 57 percent of nonprofit online alumni. Among those with loans, more for-profit online alumni (62 percent) say that making payments is difficult, compared to 44 percent of nonprofit online alumni.
When deciding where to enroll, more nonprofit than for-profit online alumni paid attention to affordability, accreditation, and transfer policies. Eighty-three percent each of nonprofit online alumni and for-profit online alumni say they only applied to or seriously considered one college. When considering college, 75 percent of nonprofit online alumni paid a great deal of attention to affordability, compared to 60 percent of for-profit online alumni. More nonprofit than for-profit online alumni also paid attention to both accreditation and the ease of transferring credits.
More nonprofit than for-profit online alumni had support from employers in learning about colleges and paying tuition. About half of nonprofit online alumni (52 percent) enrolled in college in order to get ahead in their current job, compared to 25 percent of for-profit online alumni. Instead, a 43 percent plurality of for-profit online alumni enrolled in order to change jobs entirely. More nonprofit online alumni (18 percent) learned about colleges and programs from an employer than did for-profit online alumni (8 percent). While student loans were the most common way that both groups paid for college, more nonprofit online alumni (25 percent) relied at least in part on employers to pay their tuition, compared to 10 percent of for-profit online alumni.
Most online alumni from both for-profits and nonprofits express concern about student debt, while fewer are concerned about low graduation rates or low job placement rates. But rather than favoring penalties for underperforming colleges, more alumni favor efforts to support students at those colleges. When asked to consider a range of problems in higher education, far more online alumni from both for-profits and nonprofits are concerned about high debt loads than about any other issue, such as low completion rates or low job placement rates. When asked how to hold colleges with poor track records accountable, more online alumni support requiring colleges to make plans to improve and to support students with financial, academic, or career counseling. Few support withholding colleges’ federal financial aid dollars, revoking accreditation, or closures.