The Chronicle for Higher Education: Alumni of For-Profit Colleges Have Mixed View of Experience

February 10, 2014

By Katherine Mangan

Students and graduates of for-profit colleges give their institutions high marks for teaching quality and scheduling flexibility, but nearly a third of the alumni conclude that, given the colleges’ relatively high costs, the investment isn’t worth it, according to a report being released on Monday by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group.

The report, "Profiting Higher Education? What Students, Alumni, and Employers Think About For-Profit Colleges," was financed by the Kresge Foundation. It was based on responses from a representative sampling of about 800 prospective students, 200 undergraduates, 250 alumni, and 650 employers, as well as the findings of focus groups with employers and adult prospective students.

On the plus side, students cited caring instructors, small classes, and efficient programs. The results were mixed when it came to the perceived value of the colleges’ degrees. Thirty-seven percent of the alumni said the degrees were "well worth it," while 32 percent said it "really wasn’t worth it." Thirty percent said the jury’s still out.

Meanwhile, about half of the employers saw no difference in quality between for-profit and public colleges, but among those that did differentiate, "employers tended to favor traditional institutions, with many saying that they’d prefer to hire a candidate from a reputable state school versus one from a for-profit school," the report said.

"It portrays a nuanced picture" of a sector that enrolls 13 percent of the nation’s undergraduate students, Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda, said in an interview on Friday.

"We find that both current students and alumni are satisfied with a number of aspects, including teacher quality, but that’s counterbalanced by a strong concern about the cost."

What the Colleges Do Well

Carolin Hagelskamp, Public Agenda’s director of research and the report’s lead author, acknowledged that the study had been conducted during a rough time for job seekers, a factor that could have colored their perspectives on the value of their degrees.

Still, she said, "many graduates of for-profit schools put some blame on their schools for not adequately preparing them for the job market."

In a report published in November, also with support from Kresge, Public Agenda found that most students were doing remarkably little research before picking a college and that they weren’t taking advantage of voluminous data that’s available to them, much of it on the web.

Despite all of the public debate about for-profit colleges among policy makers and education experts, more than half of the students attending the colleges thought their institutions were nonprofit, the new report said.

In a statement released on Friday, Noah A. Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the main trade group for the for-profit sector, said the report validated what the colleges are doing well. Among the pluses: Nearly all of the undergraduates surveyed said they were receiving guidance and support, and 83 percent of the undergraduates said their colleges had helped them with financial-aid applications.

"As this report details, private-sector institutions are being responsive to today’s students in ways that traditional institutions are not," Mr. Black wrote. "This includes flexibility in courses and timing, offering skills demanded by employers, and accepting and accommodating students from a variety of backgrounds."

Public Agenda conducted a parallel study of community-college students that found they were equally happy with their colleges, but less worried about finances than their counterparts at for-profit institutions.

Mr. Friedman said he hoped the report would add valuable new information to the debate about for-profit colleges. The sector, he said, "warrants scrutiny, particularly on questions of cost and student recruitment, but it’s also clear that these colleges are responding skillfully to the needs of a significant number of America’s students."

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