For-profit college enrollment more than doubled since 1996, attracting a different blend of students

Nationwide, the student population at for-profit schools includes higher percentages of women, African-Americans, older students, Pell grant and loan recipients, and members of the military than public or nonprofit institutions

College students walking in a corridor

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina — For-profit schools, which have substantially increased their share of the nation’s college enrollment in recent years, attract a different blend of students than their public and private nonprofit counterparts, according to a new report by RTI International researchers.

In 1995-1996, just 5 percent of U.S. postsecondary students chose a for-profit school. By 2011-2012, that percentage had climbed to 13 percent.

The increase was even greater among 4-year for-profit colleges, which accounted for only 1 percent of the market in 1995. In 2011, these schools enrolled 17 percent of students in 4-year degree programs.

RTI researchers Caren Arbeit and Laura Horn examined the data on the varied world of for-profit postsecondary education in a recent report for the U.S. Department of Education. Among their notable findings were:

  • Enrollment patterns in terms of attending full time, taking online courses and field of study varied by the level of for-profit institution (i.e., short-term—less-than-2-year, 2-year or 4-year).
  • Compared with their counterparts in comparable public institutions, students in for-profit 2-year and less than 2-year schools attend full time more often; similar differences were not seen at the 4-year level.
  • Below the 4-year level, fewer students at for-profit institutions worked full time than their public-college counterparts.
  • Military students constituted a larger percentage of students in for-profit 4-year institutions than in all other institutions (12 percent vs. 2 to 7 percent).
  • At every level of institution, a larger share of students at for-profit institutions received Pell Grants (awarded to low-income students) and took out federal loans compared to students at public institutions.
  • Women made up about three-quarters of students enrolled at less-than-2-year for-profit institutions, more than any other type of institution, including other for-profits, public, or nonprofit colleges and universities.  
  • Undergraduates attending for-profit institutions tended to be older, particularly at 4-year institutions, where the median age was 30, compared to 24 or younger at all other institutions.
  • Students in 4-year for-profit institutions participated in online education more than their counterparts in other institution: one-third enrolled in online programs and about half (53%) enrolled in at least one online course.
  • Women constituted about three-quarters of students enrolled at less-than-2-year for-profit institutions, more than any other type of institution (54-66 percent)
  • A quarter of students at for-profit 4-year institutions are black or African-American compared to 13 percent of students at public and nonprofit 4-year institutions; 24 to 29 percent of students at 2-year or less-than-2-year for-profits were Hispanic or Latino, compared to 19 percent at public 2-year or less institutions. Health care is a popular field for students at for-profit institutions, especially those seeking 2-year degrees. Half of students at 2-year for-profit institutions majored in a health care field, compared with 38 percent at the less-than-2-year level and 24 percent at the 4-year level.

“People often discuss for-profit colleges as if they are all very similar,” said Caren Arbeit, a research education analyst at RTI and an author of the report. “In fact, we found differences in student demographics, academic programs, majors, and enrollment patterns when we compared 4-year institutions with 2-year and less-than-2-year institutions.”

Public debates on student loans, student outcomes and the future of the labor market could benefit from a better understanding of the distinctive characteristics of for-profit colleges, Arbeit said.

Data in the report are drawn from the 2012 edition of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which RTI conducts for the National Center for Education Statistics. The study offers a nationally representative sample of more than 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students at institutions that offer federal financial aid.