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Is the for-profit model feasible to higher education institutions? In other words, are there any for-profit schools that have achieved a good reputation in academia (teaching and/or research)?

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This answer is about the US.

Are there any for-profit schools that have achieved a good reputation in academia?

As far as I can tell, the answer is (1) we don't know, but (2) probably not.

The reason it's difficult to know the answer to this question is that although there is a variety of mechanisms for judging the quality of education at non-profit schools, such mechanisms either don't exist or aren't working well in the for-profit sector. US News and World Report doesn't rank for-profit schools. There are accrediting bodies, but the ones that handle accreditation for for-profit schools seem to be lap dogs of the industry.

Because of the lack of data, people in the federal government who have been trying to crack down on fraud have been forced to use various proxies as measures of educational quality. For example, they look at the percentage of graduates who default on the government-sponsored loans that they used to go to for-profit colleges. People have also tried to figure out what percentage of students at these schools actually end up employed in their field of study. All of these statistics are at best indirect measures of quality, for-profit colleges tend to come out very low on these measures, and the colleges tend to give out fraudulent numbers to try to make themselves look good by these measures.

You can try to try to pick out a specific college, or a certain program at a certain college, as a success story. I didn't have much luck at that when I googled. One article mentioned Microsoft certifications as an example of something reasonable that you could pay a for-profit college to help you prepare for. But when I started looking up information on Microsoft certifications, it basically sounded like a scam in which the instructors are really not vetted at all, and the purpose of the program is to achieve sales and vendor lock-in.

Another example I've heard about is that often community colleges don't have enough capacity to handle the demand for certain programs like nursing. In theory, it would seem to make sense for the private sector to take up the slack. As private, non-union businesses, they are more agile. But the reality seems to be that these programs are of extremely low quality. For example, stories abound of students taking a semester-long nursing course in which five or six different instructors come and go before the course is over.

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    Thanks for the great answer! I tried googling some of the schools list in Wikipedia's list of for-profit schools. Based on your last paragraph, does that indicate a for-profit model for colleges and universities is not feasible? – jak123 Apr 13 '17 at 10:39
  • @jak123: Sorry, I don't understand your question. The model is feasible, and for-profit schools do make money. Not seeing how this relates to the final paragraph of my answer...? – Ben Crowell May 2 '17 at 0:58
  • I was referring to my general question regarding the existence of an inherent conflict between quality and profit in higher education. You made the comment that "... the reality seems to be that these programs are of extremely low quality". – jak123 May 2 '17 at 4:52
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    @jak123: I see. In the US, at the present time, there is a clear dynamic that causes these programs to be of low quality. Whether that's inherent to the model more generally is hard to say. I don't know. – Ben Crowell May 2 '17 at 20:25
  • @BenCrowell exactly. Everyone knows about the common "bottom feeding" for-profit universities that are essentially out there to make money that give the field a bad name. It would be interesting if there's an exception - a more or less "traditional" university that, for some arcane or historical reason, was organized as a for-profit company. Maybe they were incorporated at a time and in a place where nonprofit law was highly muddled or corrupted, so they just filed nominal for-profit paperwork so they could legally operate, then never bothered to fix what they didn't see as being broken. – Robert Columbia Feb 9 at 18:18

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