Commercial schools have been around for centuries, providing training in fields like accounting and construction that loftier educational institutions did not always offer. America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller Sr., completed a course at one such school, Folsom's Business College in Cleveland in 1855.
But these days, for-profit colleges are under fire. Federal investigations found that many for-profit schools have low rates of graduation and job placement, and that they target low-income students who are eligible for federal loans. The schools pocket the loan money for tuition, but when students drop out or can't find jobs, they can't repay those loans. If they default, the taxpayers lose, too. For-profit students make up 47 percent of all federal student loan defaults, according to a 2012 Senate investigation.
And yet, the appeal these schools hold is understandable. They're often easy to get into, and they do a great job marketing themselves as a way to enter careers in trendy or growing fields like technology, marketing or health care.
"For-profit schools do offer a practical option for many seeking education and training in high-demand fields. Otherwise these schools would not survive," said Richard Ruch, former dean at DeVry University and author of the book "Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University" (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Here are some tools for evaluating the quality of for-profit colleges. While it's especially important to do your homework if you're considering a for-profit school, these resources can be used to judge traditional colleges as well.
National Center for Education Statistics
The National Center for Education Statistics offers data collected and analyzed by the federal government.
Under "School Search," click "College Navigator," and on the left-hand side of the page, pick a state or type of institution, or type in a school name. Listings for individual schools say whether they are for-profit, public or private not-for-profit schools. Each listing contains a wealth of data, from tuition prices to campus security, which include crime statistics.
One important statistic is a school's cohort default rate, which is the percentage of students who default on loans within a given time once they begin repaying them. Compare the default rate for a given school with what the site lists as national averages: There's a 12.9 percent average default rate for borrowers who attended public institutions, 7.2 percent default rate for borrowers who attended private nonprofit institutions and 19.1 percent default rate for borrowers who attended private for-profit schools.
Also look at each school's "Retention and Graduation Rates." Compare statistics for the school you're looking at with national averages, found under "Postsecondary and Beyond" in the website's "Fast Facts" section. For all public institutions, NCES says graduation rates average 58 percent. For private nonprofit institutions, it's 65 percent. For for-profits, it's 32 percent. (The graduation rate is defined as the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who started a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution in 2007 and received that degree within six years.)
The education resource site Noodle.com offers up much of the NCES data in a more user-friendly format, along with other information. Noodle.com also invites readers to submit questions to be answered by the site's experts. For this article, Noodle.com crunched data like graduation rates and graduate starting salaries to identify some of the top four-year, for-profit schools with freshman classes of 500 or more. The best, according to Noodle's editor-in-chief Suzanne Podhurst, include Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, which offers degrees in entertainment, media and the arts; the School of Visual Arts in New York City; and Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a Christian liberal arts school.
Is the school you're looking at accredited, and if so, by whom?
"The accreditor should be one recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a reliable authority on college quality," said Linda Suskie, assessment and accreditation consultant.
The U.S. Department of Education has a list of accrediting agencies it recognizes.
"The next question is whether the school is having any accreditation issues," Suskie said. "Increasingly, accreditors are providing public information on the status of institutions they accredit."
Even if a school is accredited, its individual programs might not be recognized by professional boards in that field. "Too many accredited schools nevertheless offer unaccredited programs, like unaccredited nursing schools or law schools, and the graduates aren't eligible to work!" said Carrie Wofford of Veterans Education Success. Ask a local employer in the field or a national organization (like the American Bar Association for law degrees) whether a degree from the school you're considering is acceptable.
Online reviews can offer valuable opinions and anecdotes about schools. But as with all online reviews, some individuals who post negative or glowing comments may have ulterior motives, whether it's an ax to grind or a vested interest in making an institution look good. That said, it's worth seeing what folks are saying about your target schools on sites like StudentsReview.com, Colleges.Niche.com and CollegeConfidential.com.