For-profits Have the Toughest Challenge


As for-profit colleges continue to take rhetorical, legal, and financial beatings, it is worth putting into context who their students are. Generally speaking, the most challenging demographics: disproportionately older, minority, and low-income people.

Students over Age 24, by Sector, Spring 2015

Four-Year Public: 30%

Four-Year Private, Non-Profit: 40%

Two-Year Public: 39%

Four-Year Private, For-Profit: 80%

Note, especially, that two-year public colleges – community colleges – are basically in line with the other non-profit sectors, and for-profits are way above them all when it comes to having older students who are more likely to have full-time jobs, families, etc.

African-American Students, by Sector, Fall 2013

Four-Year Public: 12%

Four-Year Private, Non-Profit: 13%

Two-Year Public: 15%

Four-Year Private, For-Profit: 31%

Two-Year Private, For-Profit: 28%

There is nothing inherent to being African American that makes someone harder to educate. But there is a correlation between race and academic achievement, and African Americans tend to do worse than white students. Again, for-profit schools are serving such students in much greater proportions than are any of the non-profit sectors.

Dependent Undergraduate Students of Families Making Less than $40,000, 2011-12

Four-Year Public, Doctorate-Granting: 27%

Four-Year Public, Non-Doctorate: 36%

Four-Year Private, Non-Profit, Doctorate-Granting: 25%

Four-Year Private, Non-Profit, Non-Doctorate: 26%

Two-Year Public: 41%

Four-Year Private, For-Profit: 56%

Looking at family income, note that dependent students are a relatively small subset of people at for-profit colleges, which of course is because those schools deal far more with nontraditional students than any other sector. That said, dependent students are also a minority at community colleges. Still, the pattern is familiar: For-profits appear to work with a far more challenging group of students, including compared to community colleges.

Of course, for-profit colleges do not have great outcomes. They cost a lot of money, have poor completion rates, and their students often incur sizeable debt. But next time you hear how awful they are, keep in mind how their student bodies stack up against the non-profit sectors: they are much more challenging to work with, consisting to far greater degrees of the marginalized people federal policy is supposed to be helping. Oh, and four-year for-profit schools have essentially identical six-year completion rates to two-year community colleges: 38 percent to 39 percent.

Maybe it’s time to look somewhere else for the biggest problem in higher education.

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