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February 11, 2014 10:00 AM What Explains the Success of For-Profit Colleges? Maybe Ignorance.

By Daniel Luzer

The quality of for-profit colleges is a matter of debate. While certainly their open-access admissions and adjunct professors suggest the schools (and I’m speaking here about the large-scale institutions like the University of Phoenix or Kaplan University, not the local hairdressing or automotive mechanics training center) aren’t top quality, advocates point out that this is unfair. Most American non-profit colleges aren’t that selective, either. Is it really fair to denigrate an entire industry just because of its tax status? Is this just prejudice?

But for-profit colleges are fundamentally career colleges. They exist to help people get better jobs. And so Public Agenda conducted a survey of employers to see what they thought of the graduates of for-profit colleges.

The results are interesting. According to the report:

About half of the employers surveyed see few differences between for-profit and not-for-profit colleges. The other half typically view public institutions as superior on a number of counts. For example, 41 percent say public universities do a better job preparing students to work at their organizations.

But a whole lot of people don’t really understand the nature of for-profit colleges.

Seventy-six percent [of employers] haven’t heard or don’t know much about local for-profit schools in their own metropolitan area and 50 percent don’t have an opinion about large national for-profits like the University of Phoenix or DeVry. But nearly nine in ten (87 percent) are familiar with and opinionated about their region’s public universities.

What’s more, even students don’t know much about what proprietary colleges are or how they operate. This is true even when they’re actually enrolled at a for-profit college. The study,

reveals a startling lack of awareness among students about the overall concept of for-profit colleges, especially in contrast to the energetic debate about the sector among experts, policymakers and the media. Many students who are attending or graduated from a for-profit school say “nothing comes to mind” when they hear the term. Over half of adult prospective students considering attending a for-profit school say the same. Furthermore, a full 65 percent of current for-profit students and 63 percent of for-profit alumni are unsure whether their school is for-profit or not.

This “energetic debate about the sector among experts, policymakers and the media” has a lot to do with how for-profit colleges are “working” for students. Pundits often discuss how such institutions are they’re convenient or because they can help working adults advance in their career.

But the Public Agenda study reveals that something else might matter a lot more here: just plain ignorance.

Most students at for-profit schools not only don’t know their schools aren’t well respected; the majority apparently don’t even know they attend a for-profit school, or even what one is.

Over the last few decades, spurred in large part by the decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs, high schools have really pushed the importance of college.

Students get that. But fact that there are some colleges not worth attending is sort of hard to explain.

Note that this is also often true for foreigners. I once spent a good 40 minutes explaining to a German scientist working at Harvard what a for-profit college was. This was a matter of great confusion to him. He was basically under the impression that Harvard was for-profit, because it was private. It certainly seemed to charge students plenty of money. He had never heard of the University of Phoenix.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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