The Reasons Why For-Profit College Student Enrollment is Rising

Although student enrollment into public community colleges has declined in recent years, the enrollment into private for-profit community colleges is reversing the trend. Despite the fact both public and private for-profit colleges target older low-income students, only private for-profit community colleges have been able to halt the decrease.


Why the Decline in Public Community College Enrollment?

(1) Demographics – One factor behind the declining enrollment into public community colleges is the demographic factors of the U.S. population. Birth rates have been declining for the past 20 years, and the number of high school graduates has been declining since 2010.


(2) Economy – As businesses recover from the 2008 recession, they are increasing the number of new hires. As Jill Barshay explains in a recent Hechinger Report  Column, “students older than 24 years, in particular, who make up almost 40 percent of community college students, are finding jobs and leaving school”.


Contrary to this public market trend, the for-profit market began to halt its decline in the Fall of 2014.  According to National Student Clearinghouse data, the number of enrolled students at for-profits dropped only 0.4%  in the Fall of 2014, compared to a year earlier when enrollment declined by 9.7%. DeVry, for example, is losing students at its main DeVry University, but reported a 27% increase in enrollments at its Chamberlain College of Nursing at the start of January 2015, compared with a year earlier (Barshay).


Why the Rise in For-Profit Enrollment?

            The average annual tuition for the 2014-15 academic year at a for-profit college was $15,230, compared with $9,139 at a  public community college, according to the College Board. The significant price difference may make the rise in for-profit enrollment seem counter-intuitive. However, James Rosenbaum, a sociologist at Northwestern University who studies low-income students in their 20s and 30s, is reported saying that due to the superior advertising of private for-profits, and the fact that “many for-profits have developed good counseling departments that help students not only with their academic goals, but also with their economic and social problems. As Rosenbaum put it, “The for-profits get it…They put resources into counselors and they’re much better at retaining students than community colleges.”



“Students are Returning to For-Profit Colleges” by Jill Barshay




Graphic by Jill Barshay. Data source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Term Enrollment Estimates Fall 2014, Table 1