Rule #1 of College: Avoid for-profit colleges

Over the past 10 years, for-profit colleges -- which are different from private colleges, most of which are operated as non-profits -- have tripled their enrollment to 1.4 million, with annual revenue of $26 billion.

Leading for-profit colleges include the University of Phoenix, Devry, The Art Institutes, and Kaplan University, where students can study many of the same things they do at more traditional institutions.

But is that growth good for students?

Consider the following data points, which are facts; no amount of sales hype can change them:
  • For-profit colleges are much more expensive than public alternatives. The average tuition at a community college is just $2,544 and a public college will set you back $7,020. For-profit colleges cost, on average, $14,174.
  • According to the Project on Student Debt, 96% of 2008 graduates of for-profit colleges had debt -- compared with 62% at public universities and 72% at private non-profit institutions. Among those who borrowed, private for-profit grads left with $33,050 in debt compared with "just" $20,200 for graduates of public institutions.
  • According to a Wall Street Journal analysis (subscription required), 21% of students who use federal loans to attend for-profit college go into default within three years. That compares to 7% at public four-year colleges and 16% at public two-year colleges.
Why do people enroll in for-profit colleges? Marketing! Lynn O'Shaughnessy recently reported that "During a recent quarter, the Apollo Group [the publicly traded behemoth behind brands like the University of Phoenix] spent 20% of its $1.3 billion in net revenue on selling and promotional expenses."

For families that haven't done thorough research, these marketing campaigns can be enticing. Don't let yourself be trapped. Avoid for-profit colleges. There is really no reason ever to enroll in them, and you're likely to graduate from these institutions in worse financial shape than if you hadn't gone at all.

Zac Bissonnette's book "College On a Dime" will be published by Penguin in the fall. He is a junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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