For-profit colleges prey on the poorest students while generating a great deal of wealth to shareholders, owners, and CEOs. Figure A shows that in 2008, the median family income of students attending for-profit colleges was $22,932. This amount is only slightly higher than the U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold for a family of four. The families of students at public colleges had about twice as much income, and those at private non-profit colleges nearly three times as much.
Despite having the poorest student bodies, the CEOs running for-profit education companies earn far more than the richest leaders of traditional public and private colleges and universities. CEOs of publicly-traded for-profit education companies had an average compensation of $7.3 million in 2009, while the richest five leaders of private non-profit colleges and universities had an average compensation of $3 million (Figure B). The richest five leaders of public universities had an average compensation of $1 million.
For-profit colleges are so profitable because they charge very high tuition and invest rather little in education. Among for-profit college students, 96 percent take out student loans to pay for their education, a much higher rate than at other colleges. Since most of these loans are from the Department of Education financial aid program or U.S. military educational programs, it is ultimately taxpayers who are paying these CEOs’ salaries. These students who were already low-income often end up saddled with a very large amount of debt. Since student loan debt cannot be expunged even through bankruptcy, these debts can be “a lifelong drag on people who already are struggling.”