Colleges and universities already seem greedy enough when it comes to money. After all, even the cheapest schools cost tens of thousands of dollars. That’s why the idea of a for-profit college might seem particularly underhanded to some people. Oh, they want even more money?

Skepticism like this isn’t entirely unreasonable. Many for-profit schools have come under fire in recent years. But instead of being criticized for how much they charge, they’re condemned for producing worthless degrees, effectively scamming their students.

Yet for-profit colleges still exist, and many are doing fine, so surely there’s something worthwhile about them keeping them around. Or are they just too good at being bad to stop anytime soon?

For-Profit Schools’ Business Model

It would be redundant to say for-profit colleges are colleges that make money, but how do they make money?

Most agree for-profit schools do at least try to maintain a high caliber of academics to stay competitive on the market; not everybody agrees whether they’re succeeding to this end.

For-profit colleges are incorporated as businesses, and like all businesses, they advertise to get more people to purchase their product, which in this case is a life-changing education.

In their advertisements, for-profit schools often bill themselves as a palatable alternative to a university or community college: more focused, more accessible, and most importantly, cheaper.

Trouble is, all that advertising money has to come from somewhere. Who’s paying for it?

The students are. One of the biggest criticisms of the for-profit model is they often need to lie about being cheap to attend in order to make money, and then wind up charging more than a private college in the end.

Why They’ve Succeeded

For-profit schools aren’t typically like regular colleges with dorms and quads. For-profit colleges are often very barebones to focus on academics over aesthetics. It’s not uncommon for one of these places to be in a modified warehouse or office building.

In their defense, they really do focus on the lessons. Many for-profit colleges concentrate on one area of study, like culinary schools, nursing programs, media schools and technical institutes. Other for-profit schools offer quite a few options in an attempt to cast a wide net, but what they lack in rigor, they make up for in convenience.

Few can deny that for-profit schools were pioneers in the current trend of online classes. It was a major selling point when the Internet was in its infancy, and now with widespread Internet accessibility, traditional colleges and universities are copying the idea.

Students can learn at their own pace on their own schedules, which is especially convenient if they have to balance education with a job. 20 years ago, this convenience was something traditional schools couldn’t match, and the for-profit genre is still trying to improve upon the online-learning model to stay two steps ahead.

There’s one more key detail that has always kept for-profit schools in business. Because they’re trying to sell a product, they’ll never say no.

This has always attracted students whose high-school grades weren’t good enough to get into a traditional college. To prospective students who were broke, busy or just bad at school, for-profit colleges offered them relief from desperation in the form of tangible skills that could, not only land them a job, but find them a career. All of this is sold for just a nominal fee.

Why They Get a Bad Rep

Since their heyday around the turn of the last century, for-profit colleges have soured in the eyes of the general public. While there are a few reasons for this, they all traced back to one big issue.

“The degrees are worthless.” At least that’s what the critics say.

Nothing is absolute, of course, and many people have turned their education at a for-profit school into a long and fulfilling career. But many, many people find themselves spending thousands on a degree that looks worse on their résumé than no degree at all. In recent years, it has made some potential employers simply think they’re gullible.

Certain for-profit institutions have been, and continue to be, much more reputable than others, but the oversaturation of sketchy schools brings down all for-profit colleges’ reputations and waters down the value of their degrees.

Combining this with the fact that most of their students have traditionally been lower-class or in some other tough situation, many conclude these schools – all of these schools – have been preying on vulnerable people. That isn’t good for business.

Indeed, many for-profit colleges have been investigated and shut down by the government (or closed before the government could get to them) for things such as lying to students about tuition and the accreditation of their degrees. Others are still operating smoothly with alumni who swear by them. How can anybody tell the difference before it’s too late?

They’re Kind of Like People

Some for-profit colleges are accredited, others are not, and still others are but perhaps shouldn’t be. Some teach skills you can use for the rest of your life while others are phoning it in. Some are good and some are bad. No two of these schools are alike.

Should You Consider a For-Profit College?

As with anything, do your research. Don’t just look into the academics and the degrees; look into whether people are having success getting work with their degrees.

See whether the school has ever been in any financial troubles that saw them dropping programs to cut costs. Investigate if the school you’re looking at has a clean rap sheet or if they have a history of unsavory practices.

If you have other options, we would be remiss not to tell you to look into those first. But non-profit colleges and public universities have plenty of their own problems, some of which may be a deal-breaker to you.

For-profit colleges have survived because they plug a hole in the market: vocational training for those who have nowhere else to go. If that sounds like you, a for-profit college can either be your greatest opportunity or your biggest mistake.

If you can manage to weed out the good from the bad and decipher exactly where one of their degrees can take you in life, there’s no reason you can’t turn it into a successful experience.

The students who benefit the most from a for-profit college experience are the ones who can prove they deserved a college education when the rest of the world wouldn’t give them a chance.

But you absolutely must do your research, so don’t pick up the phone too quickly if you see another one of them advertising on TV after midnight.