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The State of For-Profit Colleges

December 2, 2021
Student Loans

For-profit colleges are big businesses, primarily funded by taxpayers. Many deliver poor instructional quality at high cost, causing a high proportion of students to drop out. Even for those students who do graduate, gainful employment in the field that they trained for is frequently elusive. Both non-completers and graduates bear high burdens of debt relative to their post college earnings and default on that debt in large numbers relative to those students who attended public and private non-profit colleges.

Interactive Map


Many for-profit students are nontraditional students, making sacrifices and struggling to manage family and work obligations to make better lives for their families. For-profit colleges target them with aggressive marketing, persuading them to invest heavily in the future with promises of successful careers and financial stability that ultimately do not materialize. In most states, for-profit colleges disproportionately enroll low-income individuals, African Americans and women, increasing the wealth gap of these populations.

The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) began this State of For-profit colleges project in December 2017. This is the third edition which uses the most recent available data as of the August 2021 release of College Scorecard by the Department of Education (ED). With certain exceptions described in the State of For-profit Colleges Methodology and Data Tables (PDF), the scroll-over map shows for each state:

  • Total undergraduate enrollment at all higher education institutions,
  • Total undergraduate enrollment at all for-profit colleges,
  • The three largest for-profit colleges based on undergraduate enrollment.

Data in this research provides a snapshot of the for-profit sector at a critical moment, as federal student loan payments have been paused during the pandemic. Because of the payment pause, sector-by-sector comparisons related to repayment and debt will not be possible in the immediate future. Thus, this edition of the State of For-Profits is likely to be the final snapshot of its kind available to advocates and the public for the next several years.

The printable fact sheet that is linked to each state provides statistics on the disproportionate impact of for-profit harms on low-income students, African Americans and women in that state. All data shown are for Title IV primarily undergraduate institutions. Note that many large online and/or multibranch for‐profit institutions aggregate data for students residing in other states under the state of their national or regional "home." This can result in the appearance of very large for‐profit enrollment in some states relative to total undergraduate enrollment size (Arizona for example).

Vermont does not display the three largest for-profit colleges based on undergraduate enrollment because it did not meet the minimum of 100 undergraduates enrolled at for-profit colleges necessary for the analysis.

CRL applauds the efforts of the Department of Education under the Biden Administration in recognizing the critical importance of increasing accountability and protecting student from abuses by the for-profit college sector. The Department has begun the process of negotiated rulemaking related to several relevant topics, including closed school discharge, borrower defense to repayment for students harmed by misleading practices at their institutions, pre-dispute arbitration and class action waivers, and the closure of the 90/10 loophole. Further, in October 2021, the Department established an Office of Enforcement within Federal Student Aid.

Acknowledgements: The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) acknowledges generous support for this project from the Prudential Foundation.