When exploring programs of interest, a prospective student may encounter for-profit and nonprofit schools. Students may perceive for-profit online colleges as a more financially risky option, but experts recommend taking what they hear in the media and through word-of-mouth with a grain of salt.
For-profit online schools became more prevalent in the late 1990s. At the time, these schools accepted most applicants, including those who weren’t prepared enough for college. This contributed to low graduation rates and higher debt, as well as a negative reputation toward for-profit schools. That’s changed in recent years, however, as these schools have begun placing a greater emphasis on student support services and have started requiring some students to take entrance exams to gauge whether they are ready for higher education.
Experts say the lines are blurring in distinguishing between for-profit and nonprofit schools when it comes to overall equivalency, but there are a few primary differences. For one, experts say, admissions are typically less selective at for-profit schools. These online colleges are more likely than nonprofits to have rolling admissions, along with academic calendars that don’t operate around the traditional semester schedule. For-profit institutions tend to have national rather than regional accreditation. Regional accreditation, which some for-profits do have, is usually preferred by employers and other universities if a student transfers.
Experts recommend looking beyond the nonprofit and for-profit classification when choosing an online degree program. Instead, they say, focus on accreditation, tuition, faculty and support services, which can all vary. Prospective students can also look at reviews of different for-profit programs to get a better sense of other students’ experiences.

For-Profit Schools

  • Historically had a negative reputation due to lower graduation rates and high student debt.
  • More likely to have national versus regional accreditation, which is preferred by employers.
  • Less competitive in the application process than nonprofit schools.

Non-Profit Schools

  • Have historically prioritized student support.
  • Are more likely to be regionally accredited compared with nonprofit programs.
  • Require students to demonstrate readiness through a more competitive application process.

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