For-Profit Schools: What You Need to Know

Over the last couple of years, there has been a LOT of press about for-profit schools. And, in a lot of cases, the news has been very, very bad.

This is a serious topic, and something that you, as a person who is interested in entering a profession in the trades, needs to know about.

This post will detail some of the issues you need to keep in mind when you're considering your educational options, and particularly when you're considering a for-profit school.

I'm in a Rush; Can You Just Give Me the Short Version?​

You should really read the whole post, but here's the "too long; didn't read" version:

There are some good for-profit schools, and there plenty of people who go to for-profit schools and continue on to good jobs. But there are also some really awful for-profit schools, and there are a lot of people who get completely screwed over by for for-profit schools---and end up with thousands of dollars of debt and an education that's not worth much. For-profit schools can be a good decision, and a lot of people thrive after attending them, but they can also be very, very dangerous, and you need to be very, very careful if you're considering going to one.

Now to the details. They're important, so let's take a closer look at the things you need to keep in mind when considering your education.

What Is a For-Profit School? How Does It Different From Other Types of Schools?​

As with most things in life, if you want to know what's going on, you need to follow the money. Here are the different types of schools and how they get their money:​

  • Public colleges and universities are funded by the tuition they receive from students, and taxes from the state and/or local government. In other words, most of the money the school needs to operate---to hire professors, pay for buildings, etc.---comes from students attending the school and the government. Examples of a public college would be your local community college or your state college (ie, Rutgers in New Jersey or University of Maryland in Maryland).
  • Private, non-profit schools receive most of their funding from students (and that's why they usually cost more than state schools). They are run as non-profits. Examples would be Princeton University in New Jersey or St. John's University in New York City.
  • Private, for-profit schools are run by companies that are out to make money, and they have investors and shareholders. They usually do not get money from the government, and instead charge students higher tuition rates.

Here's the difference between these three: of the three, private for-profit schools are the only ones that actually act like a business. Their main function is to provide a service and make money for providing that service. Non-profit schools don't work like that.

For-profit schools, like all companies, make money by doing two things:

1) They make as much money as possible by charging as much as the market will allow, and

2) They spend as little of *their money* as possible.

How have for-profit schools done these two things? For #1, "charge as much as the market will allow," many for-profit schools charge students a tuition that is absurdly high. Because students often can't afford to pay for their education out-of-pocket---after all, who has $30,000 (or much, much more) lying around?---they borrow money from the federal government in the form of students loans, and then give that money to the school to pay for tuition. After operating costs and taxes, all of the money that students borrow and then give to the schools is profit for the for-profit schools. For #2, "spend as little money as possible," many for-profit schools hire awful professors, use shoddy lab equipment, and so on. Many for-profit schools cut corners wherever they can.

For more info on public non-profit schools vs. private non-profit schools vs. private for-profit schools, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) provides a very good description of the different types of schools.

One quick note: we've had a few people write in and ask where online schools fit into the description above. Online schools, very often, are for-profit schools, although there are a few that are non-profit. ​

Are All For-Profit Schools Bad?​

Here's the thing: in and of themselves, there's nothing wrong with for-profit schools, or the for-profit business model. In fact, for-profit schools have been around for a while, and for a long time, they were a fantastic way to get an education.

For many years---through the 70s, 80s, and 90s---for-profit trade schools capably prepared students for the "real world." The charged reasonable tuition, and they provided a solid education. They offered night classes for people who worked during the day, and they didn't make you take classes you didn't need (for instance, they didn't make you take an English literature class if you wanted to become an electrician). It worked well for a long time. Sure, there were plenty of people who dropped out--that's always the case--but for the most part, the schools were reputable institutions and graduates could count on being hired.

Even today, there are plenty of for-profit schools that provide a quality education. Mike Rowe, who seems like a decent and honest man, is a big fan of certain for-profit schools (and we'll talk more about that below). And, for various career paths, there are for-profit schools that are still pretty good. Cosmetology colleges are frequently for-profit schools, and they train their students to get a state license and become full-time cosmetologists. Some are affordable and some are pricey, but for the most part, they're reasonable and they prepare cosmetology students to get their license and find work.

The reason why many for-profit schools are bad is because they can charge way, way too much, and they the education you get may not be worth very much.​

Here are some of the other ways that for-profit can be bad news:

They employ a very aggressive sales force and get people to sign up by making false promises. The more students the school has, the more money it will make, so some for-profit schools pay sales reps to get people to sign up. Some of the sales reps can be very aggressive, and have made ridiculous promises to prospective students, by telling them that all of their problems will be solved if they enroll, and that a high-paying job and a bright future awaits. The federal government has been cracking down on this, but it's something to be aware of. (Non-profit schools don't do this, by the way. You enroll, you don't enroll---nonprofit schools don't really care... unless you're a genius or a great athlete, of course!).

They target people who have no business being in school. Let's face it: everybody is smart in their own way, but some people simply aren't ready for higher education. Some for-profit schools have been criticized because they'll let absolutely anybody in---including people who, in some cases, haven't finished high school. The federal government has also been cracking down on schools' admission standards.

They advertise a LOT. The advertising budget that for-profit schools use can be very, very high. That's another thing that non-profit schools (generally) don't do.

They don't have regional accredition. We've written a long post about this and why it is so important, and you should read it. Basically, "accreditation" is a stamp of approval from an agency designed to make sure that schools are teaching students properly. It's sounds backwards, but a school that has "regional accreditation" meets high scholastic standards, while a school that has "national accreditation" has not yet met those high scholastic standards. This page from Eastern Washington University does a very good job explaining the difference; a post on also does a good job of explaining it.

Here's why accreditation is important: if you take classes at a regionally accredited school, those classes will be recognized by other schools, and you can transfer to a new school if you want, or build on your education by getting an advanced degree. If you take classes at a national accredited school, the classes you take probably will not be recognized by other schools, and if you want to transfer or get an advanced degree, you may have to take all of those courses all over again.

There's another reason accreditation is important: some professions require you to get a state license to work. In order to get a state license, you need to have a certain number of training hours at a regionally accredited school. There have been many cases where a person graduated from a nationally accredited school, and the state would not issue the person a professional license, and person had to enroll in school AGAIN.

Accreditation is very, very important, and many for-profit schools don't have regional accredition.

Red Flags to Look Out For

Here are a few things that you should be on the lookout for:

  • A representative of the school has talked with you and promised you you'll be rich if you enroll. If you're talking to a sales rep for the school and he/she is making crazy promises---"you'll make $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 after you graduate"---that's sketchy.
  • They won't stop calling you. If a representative from a school keeps calling again and again, you should probably put that school on your "no go" list. Tell them to take you off their call list.
  • It's entirely online. Again, there are some online programs that are OK, but a lot of them are not. You cannot learn to become a chef by attending an online class and watching online videos. You cannot learn to become an electrician by attending an online class and watching online videos.  You need to be in a classroom for that. Again, not all online learning is bad, but a lot of it is.

Can I Be Successful If I'm Already Enrolled in a For-Profit School?

Yes. If you're a hard worker, you give your all to your career, and always look for promotions and new opportunities, you'll probably be a big success.

It's absolutely true that there are a LOT of people who go to for-profit schools, drop out, and end up owing thousands of dollars that they have to pay back---but there are also plenty of people who have gone to for-profit schools and are currently making a good living. If you look, you'll find stories of people who became successful and stories about people who didn't all over the internet. A few of those "I went to a for-profit school and now I'm successful" posts are probably fake, and written by people who work for the school, but some of them are probably real (and, full disclosure---we know people who went to for-profit schools, and are currently making a very decent living. Some of those people we know probably may not recommend the schools, but they went, graduated, and now have good lives and high-paying jobs).

It seems like the common theme among all the people who went to a for-profit school and went on to successful careers is that they worked their tails off. They seem like the kind of people who could have gone to a community college and had similar career success.

Our "Find a School" Option Includes For-Profit Schools​ includes a "Find a School" option---it's the orange button on many of the posts on the website---and after you enter your zip code and some personal information, it will display a list of trade schools in your area. We don't control the schools that are listed when you enter your information, and it's important to realize that many of the schools presented to you will be for-profit schools. Some of the schools listed will be good, and some listed will be bad. IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT that you do your research, and find out which schools are good ones, and which ones are bad ones.

There Are Good For-Profit Schools Out There​

So, why do we include the "Find a School" option? Because there are some good for-profit schools out there! Mike Rowe, the guy from the show "Dirty Jobs," defends and promotes for-profit schools in his post here. He calls Universal Technical Institute--a for-profit school with campuses across the country---"one of the most respected trade schools in the country, and responsible for training thousands of diesel technicians."

Univeral Technical Institute is a for-profit school, and it's done a lot of people a lot of good, and it's one of the schools that may show up in our "Find a School" option (depending on your area).

There ARE good for-profit schools out there; there are just a whole lot of awful ones, as well. Our point is not that you should never go to a for-profit school---it's that you should know your options, be careful, and make an informed decision that's good for your future (and your wallet).

How Can I Tell If a School Is a Good Choice?​

Here are a few starters:​

  • Look at the price tag. If it's very, very expensive, that's a red flag. Always keep in mind that community colleges usually offer a fantastic education at a very reasonable price (and community colleges are usually regionally accredited, so if you earn credits and want to transfer, you'll have that option).
  • Go online and do some research. Go to Google and type in the name of the school you're interested in and the word "reviews." If a school has a spotty record, sites like will have plenty of people complaining about it. Keep in mind, some of the people on those review sites will be people who were going to fail out of whatever institution they decided to attend, but if a school doesn't any positive reviews, that's a bad thing. Don't underestimate the power of research---it's often your best weapon against getting ripped off.
  • Visit the school and talk to students. This can be difficult, because going up to strangers can be a little intimidating. It's worth it.

Which is the Best Education Option for People Who Want to Become Electricians?

We wrote this on the homepage, and we've tried to write it on each of the posts on this website: the best way to become an electrician is to find an apprenticeship, either through a union or a private company or a national/state program. They'll train you at almost no cost, and you'll be on your way to get all the necessary state licenses. After that, the best option is an electrical technology course at a community college. Community schools are usually affordable, and the professors know the craft. The last option is a private trade school. For all the reasons we stated above, they're a bit of a wild card. They can be a good option, but you have to be certain that the cost won't be sky-high, and that the education you receive will be worthwhile.

It gets tricky, because apprenticeships can be hard to get, and not all community schools offer electrician training, and that leaves for-profit schools. As we've been saying--and we're saying it again and again, so that it'll stick--do you research. 

By the way, the same goes for men and women who want to get into other trades, too---the best way to get into the trades to do is get an apprenticeship, or go to a community college, or find a good company and start out "green" and work your way up.​

​One Last Thing: For-Profit Schools Aren't the Only Problem

For-profits, in their current state, can be a bad gig. But that's not the only problem with education right now.

You can got to a non-profit public school, like Rutgers or University of Maryland mentioned above, and pay $60,000 for an education that's worthless. You can pay $60,000 to study social work, or art history, or ancient Greek, or communications, or psychology, or English literature, or dance, or any number of things, and when you get out of school, whatever job you're going to find will pay very, very little---and you've got $60,000 to pay back over the course of ten to thirty years (yes---student loans last a long, long time). Those topics are important topics, but it's very, very tough to turn them into a job that produces a livable wage.​

The point is, you need to be careful with for-profit schools, but you need to be careful with non-profit schools, as well. Just about everything is overpriced today, and if you're not paying attention, you'll be saddled with debt that lasts a long, long time.

Pulling All the Info Together​

There's a LOT of info here, so if you need to, give the post a couple of reads. It's important.

Again, we're not saying "Don't go to a for-profit school"---we know people who have gone to for-profit schools and graduated and now have good jobs that pay well. We're saying, "DO YOUR RESEARCH." Know all your options. Find out about local apprenticeships, learn about ALL of your educational options (and which are the most affordable), and talk to people. The more you know, the better off you'll be.​

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