To some students, a for-profit online degree program seems like a risky option.
"I've seen a lot of reports for a lot of years about how for-profit schools have pretty much based their incomes on the ability for students to get federal financial aid," says 30-year-old Matt Warner, a cybersecurity and information assurance master's student at the nonprofit, online Western Governors University.
Though he's personally hesitant about for-profits, he suggests prospective students focus more on factors such as cost and the degrees offered.
For California resident Carlos Ramirez, enrolling in an online doctoral program in health administration at the for-profit University of Phoenix was a no-brainer. Ramirez previously earned his bachelor's and master's at the school and was satisfied with its flexibility and student support.
Experts say in online education, a school's classification as a for-profit versus nonprofit tells prospective online students little about overall quality.
"I think it's less about the sector and more on how attentive the institution is to meeting the needs of students, to understanding best practices, to preparing their faculty for this robust learning experience," says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, an organization aiming to improve online higher education.
For-profit institutions have faced criticism in recent years for questionable recruitment practices, low graduation rates and high student debt. Though employers today are becoming more receptive to accepting candidates with for-profit, online degrees, there's still a stigma around them, experts say.
"It’s a distinction that has gotten a lot of press over the last many years, and I’m not sure that it’s warranted," says Betty Vandenbosch, president of the for-profit Kaplan University, which delivers many degrees online.
When for-profit online degree programs started becoming more prevalent around 1999, they accepted almost anybody who applied, including those who weren't sufficiently prepared for college, says Kathleen Ives, OLC's CEO and executive director, who has served as faculty for both for-profits and nonprofits. That, she says, contributed to low graduation rates and high debt for those who dropped out.
That initial focus primarily on corporate profits "has tainted much of the for-profit sector. And not fairly, because the for-profit institutions are just as diverse as the nonprofit institutions," says David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at the University of Wisconsin—Extension, which coordinates continuing education and online programs across 26 statewide campuses.
Things have begun to change at many for-profits, Pedersen says. Overall, quality of student services ranges in the sector, but many for-profits have started focusing more on student success in addition to attracting applicants.
Many for-profits, Ives says, now require undergraduate applicants to complete assessments to determine whether they are ready for online college. That's how undergraduate admissions works at the for-profit, online American Public University System for non-military students and those entering with few credits, says Karan Powell, the institution's president.
"We, over time, have made the decision that there are some demonstrations of college readiness that need to be evident," says Powell, and retention rates have improved as a result.
Still, in comparison with nonprofit online programs overall, admissions at for-profits are generally less selective, says Mia Ellis, assistant director of admission services at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, who has also worked at for-profit schools. Still, she acknowledges that admission into many online programs is easier compared with on-campus offerings.
For-profit programs have been more likely than nonprofits to have rolling admissions and academic calendars that don't operate around the standard semester schedule, experts say – though that format is now gaining momentum among nonprofits.
Beyond structure, experts say for-profit online programs are more likely to have national rather than regional accreditation. Regional accreditation, which some major for-profits do have, is preferred among employers and other universities if a student transfers.
And when it comes to tuition and fees, for-profit programs charged full-time students an average of $16,000 for the 2016-2017 school year, according to data from the College Board. That's compared with $3,520 at two-year public colleges for full-time in-state students and $9,650 at four-year public colleges for in-staters, the report found. These data don't distinguish between online and on-ground programs.
Out-of-state tuition at public colleges and tuition at private universities, however, was higher than at for-profit schools in 2016-2017, according to the data.
Ultimately, a prospective online student's decision should involve thorough research about for-profit programs' accreditation, experts say. Students should also compare tuition, faculty and support services, which can all vary in strength.
Tami Smith, an online bachelor's student at Colorado State University—Global Campus, transferred out of a for-profit online bachelor's program mainly because she was dissatisfied with the academic support she received, she says. Her second time around, she read student reviews and found useful information online.
"I read the good reviews and the bad reviews, and just took my time to choose that right school," she says.