The for-profit higher education sector has attracted significant attention over the past few years—both from enthusiasts and from critics. For-profit colleges and universities have seen a steep increase in student enrollment. And they have become increasingly visible through their ubiquitous advertisements and proactive—some would say aggressive—recruitment strategies.

Supporters argue that the for-profit sector has been a source of innovation in higher education, including by being an early leader in the rapid expansion of online education. For-profit colleges have also been lauded for their ability to respond quickly to changing labor market demands and for using both teacher and student performance data to improve services and streamline curricula. Critics, however, hold that in too many instances for-profit schools lure students to enroll in comparatively expensive programs when these students could instead get a less expensive degree—and perhaps a better education—from a public institution.

To better understand the firsthand experience of for-profit students, as well as the perspective of employers on for-profit higher education, Public Agenda, with support from The Kresge Foundation, conducted representative surveys of the following groups:

  • Undergraduate students currently enrolled in certificate or degree programs at for-profit colleges, including less than two-year, two-year, and four-year programs
  • Alumni of for-profit colleges who have completed certificate and undergraduate degree programs since 2006
  • Adults without degrees who are considering enrolling in college in the next 24 months to earn postsecondary credentials
  • Human resources professionals (employers)

Key findings include:

  1. For-profit undergraduates aren’t comparative shoppers. Most considered only one school before enrolling.
  2. Adult prospective students who are considering for-profit colleges have some distinct expectations, priorities and needs.
  3. For-profit undergraduates and alumni laud their schools on key quality indicators, but many worry about the cost—and ultimate value—of their education.
  4. Employers are either neutral on whether for-profit or public colleges provide a higher-quality education, or they give an edge to public institutions.