Survey: Nonprofit vs. For-Profit Colleges

nonprofit vs. for-profit college

A fascinating survey has just been released by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research and public engagement firm. Investigators collected data from a representative sample of graduates from both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. They received a total of 413 responses, including 217 nonprofit online alumni and 169 for-profit online alumni. Questions focused on respondents’ at-large perceptions about their chosen institution and were not program-specific.

Major Takeaways

There were three big takeaways for me in the survey results:

  • Affordability, accreditation, and whether or not their credits would transfer played more of a role in choosing a college for nonprofit alumni than for graduates of for-profit programs, the survey found.
  • The only factor in which for-profits exceeded nonprofits was providing hands-on financial aid application support to students.
  • About half of nonprofit online alumni (52 percent) enrolled in college in order to get ahead in their current job, compared to 25 percent of for-profit online alumni.

Survey Leads to More Questions

This leads me to ponder some additional questions to consider:

  • Were students who chose a for-profit college so enamored by the personalized, hands-on support in securing financial aid that the institution’s accreditation status became less important?
  • Related, did all of attention they received from the for-profit institution overshadow the affordability factor?
  • Why didn’t those choosing a for-profit institution consider transfer credit policies when making their decision where to attend college? Was this the result of a “hard sell” approach from for-profit enrollment counselors, or some other reason?
  • Survey data indicate twice as many students who chose a nonprofit institution were already employed as those who chose for-profit institution. Does this suggest that for-profits may be targeting and recruiting prospective students who are already underemployed, less financially secure, and thus potentially more receptive to the personalized financial aid assistance they receive?
  • Would survey results be consistent if disaggregated by academic program?
  • If nonprofit institutions stepped up their game and provided more direct support in the financial aid application process, would this further diminish the appeal that for-profits hold?

More Research Needed

The higher education community needs to make data-informed decisions about how best to serve students.  It would be great to see institutions include formalized research in annual goals as part of their strategic plan. Anecdotal information abounds, but there doesn’t appear to be a repository for quality research that compares the nonprofit vs. for-profit space. It’s time we made that happen.


About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).  She can be reached at:


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