Aug 4, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

A staggering array of higher education options is available to today’s college students. And while choice is always a good thing, it can also be confusing. For online students, understanding the difference between for-profit and nonprofit degrees can be particularly tricky. Here’s an overview of each aimed at helping you choose the right path.


The 411 on For-Profit Online Degrees

Funded by private investors and institutions, for-profit online universities have an agenda that goes beyond merely educating students: They’re also concerned with reporting back to a corporate board regarding ROI. In other words (and not surprisingly, given their name), their primary purpose is to make a profit.

But just because a school has the goal of making money (and, in a less direct sense, nonprofit institutions also share this objective -- albeit with the profit being funneled back into the school, not into investor pockets) doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve the needs of its students. For students looking to go into certain careers, for example, such as nursing and other healthcare fields, these schools often offer specializes coursework and training, along with more direct entry into a desired field. Not only that, but they may also be more responsive and accountability to student concerns due to the fact that they’re run like a business and therefore are more likely to maintain a “The customer is always right” culture and mindset.

For-profit degrees also target a different type of student. For non-traditional students who require flexible class schedules and standards which factor in other commitments ranging from family life to full-time jobs, for-profit universities off both appealing flexibility and less competitive admissions processes. That said, you may pay for this flexibility in the form of higher tuition fees so be sure to compare costs before making a decision.

One other difference between for-profit and nonprofit organizations? The former are usually stand-alone entities unassociated with bricks-and-mortar counterparts, while the latter are likely to be extensions of schools with physical presences, as well.

One last thing to keep in mind about for-profit online colleges? Many people mistakenly assuming that for-profit institutions lack accreditation. In reality, both for-profit and nonprofit may be accredited so it’s important to look into this on a case by case basis. If you’re concerned that enrolling in a for-profit online degree program is the equivalent of “buying” a degree, choosing an accredited schools offers quality assurance.


The 411 on Nonprofit Online Degrees

According to the  Digital Learning Compass organization’s Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017, the number of college and university students taking at least one online class through private, non-profit organizations now exceeds six million, representing 11.4 percent growth. Conversely, the number of students enrolled in classes at private for-profit institutions fell by 9.4 percent.

Which begs the question: Why is one segment growing while the other declines? For starters, the trend may be due to the fact online degrees originated as the exclusive domain of for-profit institutions while nonprofits entered the space more recently. It follows that as the number of four-year schools -- including many at the top of the rankings -- offering online degree programs has risen, so has the number of students enrolled in these programs.

However, the phenomenon may also be attributable to core differences between for-profits and nonprofits, including the more diverse curricula offered by the latter, which typically include the same offerings available on campus. So while for-profit schools may have the inside edge when it comes to specialized training, nonprofit schools may have stronger pull for the greater number of students looking for a broader, more liberal-arts oriented education.

Additionally, for students for whom factors like prestige and access to resources available in bricks and mortar programs, including everything from teaching staff to the utilization of cutting-edge classroom technologies, a nonprofit online degree may be the more suitable choice as they typically spend more per student.

For those looking for the chance at a taste of traditional college life, meanwhile, nonprofit degree programs may also come with the opportunity to take a class or two on campus.  Similarly, while the curricula of for-profit programs may be standardized, curricula at nonprofit schools are designed by individual professors.

Ultimately, the online education sector is no different from the traditional bricks-and-mortar sector in that there’s no one-size-fits-all “best” option. Both are focused on delivering educational opportunities and online degrees which meet the needs of their constituents. In other words, the difference may ultimately come down not to how well these schools prepare students for the rest of their lives, but to their management practices.





Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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