- Students are attracted to for-profit online college programs for their ease of enrollment and help obtaining financial aid, but "are subsequently disappointed with the poor quality of education provided," according to student focus group research published by the Brookings Institution.
- For-profits enroll an outsized share of students in online-only programs — 22% of online undergrads (compared to 5.4% of all undergrads) and 27% of online graduate students (compared to 8.9% of all graduate students), the authors note. In marketing and recruitment, the colleges target African Americans, women and adult students, and most of the students are out of state.
- Recent studies have raised questions about the quality of online college programs. The authors found from talking with students of online for-profit programs that "[t]heir hopes of improved financial stability through the pursuit of higher education meet head on with disappointing labor market outcomes and unsustainable levels of student debt."
As the Brookings report authors — Robin Howarth and Lisa Stifler of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending — note, a 1998 change to the Higher Education Act opened the door to colleges enrolling more than half of their students in online programs. Seeking cost-efficiency, scale and the chance to reach more adult students, for-profits were early adopters. Today for-profits are still orienting more and more online, but they are not alone.
Public and private nonprofit universities have joined the field. Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire universities are already established online players, and others are seeking a national footprint and enrollment expansion through online programs.
In early March, for example, the University of Massachusetts System said it planned to launch a national online college for adult learners. The move would help "lead (the university) through the coming disruption and emerge stronger on the other side," President Marty Meehan said of the effort at the time.
UMass follows the path others have taken, including the State University of New York (SUNY), which last summer put out a request for information about ways to grow its online presence within the state and across the U.S. The University of Missouri System also sees a more strategic approach to online learning as key to growing its enrollment by 25,000 by 2023.
All this is happening while many for-profits "have thrown all of their resources into expanding their online education model, typically through the closure of brick-and-mortar campuses in favor of an exclusively online presence," Howarth and Stifler write. Others, such as Kaplan University, Grand Canyon Education and others, have sold or spun off their associated institutions and turned themselves into educational services providers and online program managers.
The Brookings report points out the risks to students in the trend toward online education, referencing studies showing that students of online-only, for-profit programs are "particularly poor in terms of completion and earnings after leaving school." The authors conducted focus groups with 75 individuals who went to for-profit colleges within the last decade to understand their motivations. Those who went through online-only programs often said they were drawn by the convenience. Often they found the quality of those online programs lacking or noted that other students in the program weren't prepared for college.
"Even though we had an instructor and they'd be there to quote 'help' us, it was more ... about teaching yourself," one focus group participant told the researchers. "And just trying to learn everything by myself because I didn't really have anybody there to teach me."