Amid Rising Tuition, For-Profit Students Often Pay More for Less

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A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on postsecondary tuition highlights the speed at which college tuition costs are rising. Most concerning is the rate at which tuition is increasing in some for-profit programs compared with tuition for other programs, particularly when considered in the context of the earnings graduates of many for-profit programs obtain.

The NCES report shows an 11.4 percent increase in the tuition for less-than-two-year, for-profit institutions, where the average annual tuition was $14,439 in 2011-2012. In contrast, between the 2009-10 school year and the 2011-12 school year, in-state tuition at four-year public institutions rose 9 percent.

Compounding the problem of high tuition, graduates of many certificate programs at for-profit college companies are unlikely to receive salaries commensurate with their investment. For example, the typical graduate of Everest College’s aromatherapy certificate program can expect to earn just $13,929 annually. Graduates of Empire Beauty School’s cosmetology certificate program in Phoenix should expect to earn just $8,748. Paying for basics like food and rent is hard enough on $8,748 a year, which is below the poverty level for a single person. Add the monthly cost of paying off the enormous student loan debt, and these graduates are squeezed even tighter.

Often, pursuing pricey certificates at for-profits often also means passing up more affordable options at other schools. The average annual tuition and fees for an in-district student attending a less-than-two-year public college is just $6,701 — less than half the average cost at a similar for-profit institution. The difference is even starker at two-year colleges: Two-year for-profit institutions average $14,131 annually, while in-district public community colleges average only about a fifth of that ($2,912).

The soaring price of postsecondary education is daunting for many students and families, and addressing the problem is important work. But curbing the scourge of high-priced programs that offer little value to students deserves particular attention. Students deserve better than a pile of debt for a certificate or degree that promises but fails to increase their earning power.

— Jim Davy