The Oddly Complex For-Profit Higher Education Model

The decades leading into the 21st century showed great promise for young people looking to make their marks in the world. A college education held the key to many opportunities that were supposed to open up after walking down the aisle and receiving that degree.

Of course, the desire to get a college education made the college industry more competitive and this has helped to also grow smaller, for-profit colleges and trade schools who market their curriculum as a more direct—and, perhaps, less restrictive—means to get a particular type of degree.

While the idea of learning at home or on your spare time while you work a job (or two) is certainly appealing for working adults and high school graduates alike, it is also, apparently, quite appealing to businesses who invest in this profit-based education model. For example, in 2014 alone, four companies that own and run for-profit schools recorded a collection of more than $1 billion a piece.

Now, these schools make money, of course, based on enrollment and so the schools which use these profit models have pioneered modern marketing techniques—like websites that collect information that can generate marketing leads and text messaging inquiry follow ups, etc—to encourage and recruit more students. In fact, a 2011 Senate report found that “[for profit college] recruiting managers at some companies created a boiler-room atmosphere, in which hitting an enrollment quota was the recruiter’s highest priority…[and] recruiters’ salaries at many for profit colleges were tightly tied to enrolling a certain number of new students.”

If this sounds a bit like commission-paid sales people stopping at nothing to make a sale that’s because it is. But it makes sense—even if it may not be so moral—that schools designed to profit from education should attempt to increase enrollment. Whether or not students who do enroll in these countries get their money’s worth is another thing entirely.

At the same time, aggressive recruiting practices are no longer limited to for-profit schools. As a matter of fact, students who study online at either public or private non-profit schools are now being recruited in ways similar to these; and these students pay hundreds of millions of dollars (in total) every year to companies who profit from higher student enrollment.

Obviously, this model is lucrative and, therefore, successful as a business. But the success of a college or university should, in fact, be determined by its ability to produce highly productive graduates.