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Stefani Relles

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For-Profit Universities: Part III by Douglas Burleson

This week, 21st Century Scholar continues its conversation about for-profit universities with a post by Doug Burleson.

About the author: Doug Burleson is a research assistant in the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA) working with Dr. William Tierney. His research interests include issues of college preparation and access as well as how educational quality is measured and perceived.

Why a For-Profit?

by Douglas Burleson

Degree-granting, for-profit colleges and universities (FPCUs) are the fastest growing segment of the higher education sector.  Blumenstyk (2003) notes that FPCUs are expanding at a rate three times faster than traditional colleges and universities.  For-profits now account for 6.5% of enrollments in all degree-granting institutions in the United States, an increase in market share of 5.4% since 1997-1998 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2009).  Enrollment at FPCUs has increased approximately 960% over the same time period.  As a comparison, enrollments in 4-year, traditional colleges and universities (both public and private) have increased only 50% since 1997 (NCES, 2009).  Admittedly, the majority of the growth at FPCUs has occurred at the undergraduate level, but many FPCUs have also begun to expand their services to incorporate graduate studies.

My current research focuses on the experiences of graduate students.  I am engaged in a study of the factors that contribute to the decisions students’ make about where to earn their degrees.  This study compares M.B.A. students at one for-profit university and one public state university.  Existing literature on college choice is robust, but little attention has been given to the experiences of graduate students and students at FPCUs.  Essentially, I want to know why comparable students choose one institution rather than another.  In particular, why would students spend more than $30,000 to attend an FPCU rather than approximately $13,500 at a comparable state university?

An initial analysis of the data reveals five main factors that contributed to the decisions these students made: proximity, flexibility, time to degree, cost, and quality of instruction.  Proximity refers to the geographic convenience of the university campus.  In selecting a graduate program, students sought out schools that were close to their homes or offices.  The flexibility of a program relates to the selection of course types and to the course schedule.  The students in this study looked for a program that offered them the option of taking classes at times that best suit their schedules.  The fact that courses were offered predominantly in the evenings and on weekends at both campuses was important for these students.  Also, the fact that the FPCU offered the students the ability to take courses on-site or online was an appealing characteristic.  The amount of time it would take to complete the program of study also influenced the students’ decisions.  With full-time enrollment, students at the FPCU can complete the M.B.A. in as little as 14 months, which is significantly shorter than at most traditional institutions.  Students at the state university take a minimum of 18 months to complete their degrees.  Program cost was important because the students did not want to incur excessive debt in earning their degrees.  As noted above, students at the FPCU pay more than twice as much to earn their degrees.  However, their basis for comparison is not the state university, but rather highly prestigious, private universities where M.B.A. programs can cost upwards of $90,000.  Finally, students wanted to attend a program with faculty who were leaders in their chosen field because they wanted a curriculum based on real-world experience.

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