High cost and high debt for students at for-profit colleges

For-profit colleges tend to enroll students who are not familiar with traditional higher education. They are more likely to be low-income, African American or Latino. Significant numbers of veterans also enroll in these schools. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions found that recruiters “were trained to locate and push on the pain in students’ lives.” Additionally, undercover recordings by the Government Accountability Office and other sources show that many for-profit college recruiters “misled prospective students with regard to the cost of the program, the availability and obligations of Federal aid, the time to complete the program, the completion rates of other students, the job placement rate of other students, the transferability of the credit, or the reputation and accreditation of the school.”

This combination of naïve students and misleading information allows for-profit colleges to set tuition in line with their profit goals (many of these colleges are publicly-traded companies) rather than in line with the cost of education. Figure A shows that the average cost of a certificate program at a for-profit college is 4.7 times the cost of an equivalent program at a public community college. The average cost of an associate degree is 4.2 times what it would cost at a typical community college. Bachelor’s degree programs average 19 percent higher at a for-profit college than at a flagship state public university.

Not surprisingly, for-profit college students end up with higher levels of debt than other college students. Of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, 57 percent of for-profit college students owed $30,000 or more (Figure B). For students who graduated from a private non-profit college, 25 percent had this amount of debt. For graduates of public colleges, only 12 percent had this much debt.