The Differences Between Not-for-Profit and For-Profit Colleges

Today’s guest post is from Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD Candidate at Emory University, an expert in for profit education and a former admissions and financial aid counselor in two for-profit schools. Ms McMillian Cottom took some time to share with our readers some insight into her research and insights on the growing for-profit college industry.

There are a lot of factors to consider your sophomore and junior year of high school when you embark upon your college application planning. Do you want to move as far away from home as possible or be close enough for Sunday dinners? Do you want the intimate environment of small, liberal arts colleges or the rush of a large, urban campus? What fields of study should your dream college offer? What kind of social life can you build once you get there? The list goes on and on.

One thing rarely considered but, perhaps, equally important to those other considerations is the institutional type of your dream school. Institutional type refers to the mission of the college. By college mission I don’t mean “to live and serve” but “to profit or  not to profit.”  If you don’t know the difference between a for-profit college and a not-for-profit college don’t feel badly. You’re not alone. A new research report found that among adults enrolled in online college degree programs, 17 percent had no idea if their school was for-profit or not-for-profit. More importantly, the question you might be asking is why you should care about the institutional type of your college.

Good question.

The biggest differences between for-profit colleges and not-for-profit colleges are the diversity of college majors offered, the cost of the degree, and the chances the degree will get you a good job.

So, let’s start with a few facts about for-profit colleges and then we’ll explore some ways to determine a school’s institutional type and determine what school is best for you.


For-Profit versus Not-For-Profit Colleges

One of the biggest differences between these two institutional types is what kind of education they provide.

For-profit colleges predominately offer classes and degree programs in allied healthcare, business, and education. If you are interested in any of those fields you might think that for-profits are a good choice. But there are a few other things to consider. Not all degree programs are created equal. For-profits offer more two-year Associates degrees than they do Bachelors degrees and most often for entry level jobs like nursing assistant instead of the more lucrative field of nursing practitioners or physician’s assistants instead of medical doctor.

If your dream job might require some post-bachelor training like the kind physician’s assistants or senior managers often have to have, then you may want to think twice about a for-profit college. There is some evidence that not-for-profit and competitive graduate schools, medical schools, and law schools don’t look kindly on applicants with degrees from for-profit colleges.

The next biggest difference is how much a for-profit college degree will cost you as opposed to a traditional degree.  A for-profit degree is often an expensive choice. The average cost of a two-year associate’s degree at a for-profit college is $35,000 as opposed to $8,200 at a community college. The average cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree at a for-profit college is $63,000 as opposed to $52,500 at a comparable top-tier, state flagship university.

Behind those numbers are a few other things to consider. The $52,500 at your top-tier state university includes things like room and board (a place to sleep and all you can eat in the cafeteria!), student health insurance, and access to computers, software, and technology that can help you write your papers, learn your subject matter, and stay up to date. By contrast, for-profit colleges are not residential campuses, meaning they do not have dorms or housing or cafeterias. The $63,000 won’t cover where you’ll live for the four years of your degree program. It also won’t provide things like cheap and free medical care from a student health center or the 24 hour access to computer labs and extensive library collections that are fairly common at not-for-profit colleges. Depending on your financial situation those differences can be a huge cost.  The question to ask is whether you and your family can afford the higher tuition at a for-profit college PLUS rent money, insurance premiums, and a complete technology set-up in your home.

The huge, fuzzy, pink elephant in the room when we talk about for-profit versus not-for-profit colleges is whether future employers, graduate school admissions counselors, and investors in your killer business plan will think highly of a degree from a for-profit college. The jury is rather out on that but there is some evidence that employers scrutinize resumes with the names of for-profit colleges and that admissions committees find them a reason to trash an application. That could explain some of the differences in outcomes of for-profit students: data show that they earn less than their not-for-profit counterparts, are unemployed longer six months after graduation, and are more dissatisfied with their educational experience.

Finally, there’s something to be said about all the other cool experiences that make college valuable. Leadership opportunities in extra-curricular activities, playing a team sport, joining a fraternity or a sorority – those are all still pretty rare, if not non-existent, at for-profit colleges. It’s a reason to ask exactly what the extra cost of a for-profit college degree is providing you.


How Will I Know?

The next big question is – how do you determine a college’s type?

The easiest way is to ask. Colleges are legally and honor bound to tell you if they are for-profit or not-for-profit. So, start by asking. Sadly, people aren’t always as honorable as the rules dictate so don’t stop there.  A quick Wikipedia search is your next best bet. Although not perfect, Wikipedia is an accessible tool for the kind of basic information you will be looking for. Enter a college’s name in the Wikipedia search box and click on the page that pops up. Almost every college page on Wikipedia has the same format with the basic information, like institutional type, prominently displayed at the top:


This is actually a good way to research all the schools on your wish list. Wikipedia pages provide snapshots of important basics like accreditation, degree strengths, and the general culture of the school. However, Wikipedia pages can become outdated so don’t depend on them for process or financial information. Go straight to the source for that information. [Editor’s note: also provides a very accessible overview of colleges]


The More You Know

Lots of things can make getting into your dream college easier. Some of them, like grades, work ethic, and course selection, you can control. Others, like where you were born or how you were born, you cannot. But, the availability of information can help level the playing the field. The  more you know in this college process, the better prepared you will be for every great opportunity that comes your way.

Knowing the differences between for-profit colleges and not-for-profit colleges can have a big impact on how much you pay for your education and how much that education repays you in life. Be sure to ask, research, and compare institutional types as you set out on your grand college adventure.


by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Emory University. Broadly, Tressie is interested in power and institutions. Her current research agenda tackles questions of inequality and stratification by asking, “Why are 1 in 10 black college students – many poor, low-income, and first generation – now enrolled in a for-profit?” Her public writing has been published in Inside HigherEd, Huffington Post, and Contexts magazine.

She is a Public Voices Though Leadership Fellow, a researcher with the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke University, and a former Engaged Research Fellow with Emory’s Office of University-Community Partnerships. She also continues to consult with national and international clients on education policy and organizational effectiveness. When not trying to keep step with her schedule Tressie is an avid live music fan, an urban explorer, and hands-down the worst player on her recreational kick ball team.

Follow Tressie McMillan Cottom on Twitter:


Other stories on the for profit industry: Frontline, The Village Voice, and the NY Times

  • ANY



    So glad to see someone else write about this! I also have written about these and also nationally accredited colleges at my blog to get the word out… Especially to my fellow veterans who often fall prey.

  • (646) 414-1586
COPYRIGHT ©2002 - 2020 BELL CURVES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. All tests names are registered trademarks of the respective testing companies, which do not endorse and are not affiliated with Bell Curves.
BELL CURVES - 25 West 36th Street, 8th Floor - New York, NY 10018 Bell Curves is an educational services and test preparation company. It delivers high-quality consulting services, test preparation programs, and self-study resources to students throughout the country.
Equal Opportunity Employer - Privacy Policy - Refund Policy