The Program for Research on Private Higher Education
Dedicated to Building Knowledge about Private Higher Education around the World
WP No.14

Access in U.S. Higher Education: What does the For-profit Sector Contribute?


Kinser, Kevin. 2009 "Access in U.S. Higher Education: What does the For-profit Sector Contribute?" PROPHE Working Paper No.14. Revised and published as: Kinser, K. (2009). How the For-Profit Sector Contributes to Access in U.S. Higher Education. Enrollment Management Journal, 3(4). pp 23-44.


The private sector’s role in higher education access has received limited attention, though the expansion of the sector globally has immediate implications for the ability of the system to serve more students. In the U.S. case, the private sector includes both nonprofit and for-profit forms, with the for-profit institutions comparable in critical ways to the growing private sector in other countries. Developing quickly as significant members of the higher education enterprise in the U.S., for-profits can be compared along several access dimensions with public and nonprofit institutions to determine how they contribute to overall access in the U.S. system. This comparison demonstrates the role of for-profit higher education as an access path in terms of scope of programs offered, the numbers and types of students served, and the cost of providing access in a for-profit model.

Yet this assessment shows the ambiguity of access as it relates to the for-profit sector. It is clear that for-profit higher education increases the availability of higher education beyond what it would be with exclusively public provision. In addition, new students are brought into higher education who may not be served by existing institutions. But this access comes at a cost. Most obviously, the personal expense incurred by students pursuing this path is constraining, even though the U.S. indirectly subsidizes the sector through financial aid to all students. Access is also constrained by the limited scope of programs available in the for-profit sector, and the limited capacity of most institutions. Quality and efficacy remain a concern, especially considering much aid is in the form of loans that students must repay after graduation. Because of the importance of the aid subsidy to the viability of the for-profit sector, access remains dependent on state support, even as the sector serves successfully as an alternative path to higher education.

Date Published:
Mar 2009