Can For-Profit Schools Be Accredited?

Meg Whitenton
Updated February 21, 2024
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While for-profit and nonprofit schools differ in many ways, both can seek college accreditation. Many well-known colleges across the U.S. operate as for-profit institutions.

Accreditation is an indicating factor of a school’s reputation and quality standards. Schools must earn accreditation through a lengthy process that sets them apart from “diploma mills” and other fraudulent programs and institutions.

Only accredited schools can award legitimate degrees, prepare students for licensure, and offer federal financial aid.

Are For-Profit Colleges Accredited?

For-profit colleges most commonly hold national or programmatic accreditation versus mostly regionally (or institutionally) accredited not-for-profit schools, like state colleges.

Many for-profit colleges opt for pay-to-play and illegitimate accreditors. Accrediting agencies must be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to be considered legitimate.

The higher education community tends to view regional accreditation, now called institutional accreditation, as the gold standard since it requires a more exhaustive and rigorous process. A for-profit college’s accreditation process helps ensure the school prioritizes high-quality programs over income.

A for-profit school may earn specialized accreditation based on the type of programs it offers or its delivery methods. For example, ED-approved agencies exist specifically for accredited online schools and distance programs.

National accrediting agencies may also endorse for-profit schools that offer primarily faith-based, vocational, or arts and sciences programs.

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Why Is College Accreditation Important?

College accreditation legitimizes a school’s programs and operations. Accreditation sets standards for all institutions of higher learning — from community colleges to the Ivy League.

Students must attend an accredited college to earn a viable degree, complete transferable credits, and qualify for professional licensure and employment.

If you attend an unaccredited college, you won’t be eligible for any federal financial aid, and you won’t qualify for professional licenses. You should always verify your school of choice holds current college accreditation.

Did You Know…

The first regional accrediting agency was founded in 1885. Accrediting agencies initially only evaluated secondary schools.

What Is a For-Profit College?

Companies and businesses own for-profit schools and run them privately.

Unlike public and not-for-profit schools, for-profit colleges are not obligated to invest income back into programs and resources. Instead, they are beholden to investors and shareholders. For-profits use tuition payments for payroll, marketing, and recruiting costs.

Private, for-profit colleges do not receive the same federal funding as public, nonprofit schools, so they typically offer limited-to-no financial aid through government grants and endowments.

For-profits commonly offer career-focused degrees and certificates or specialize in distance education, faith-based programs, or a particular professional field.

For-Profit Colleges vs. Nonprofit Colleges

Cost is among the biggest differences between nonprofit and for-profit colleges. For-profits tend to cost less than private nonprofit universities but more than public state-run schools.

For-profits may also offer fewer federal financial aid options and increase student debt. You should compare the student debt rates of nonprofit and for-profit colleges in your area.

Most for-profits also offer a wider variety of vocational programs than public schools, with higher acceptance rates for non-high school graduates and minority applicants. However, you may encounter issues transferring credits to another school or pursuing a specialized major.

Always carefully consider which type of school best suits your learning and career goals.

For-Profit Colleges vs. Nonprofit Colleges
For-Profit CollegesNonprofit Colleges
Average Graduation Rate29%68% (private), 63% (public)
Average Student Loan Total$8,431$11,181 (private), $8,603 (public)
Average Tuition Rates (4-year)$18,200$37,600 (private), $9,400 (public)
Types of SchoolsInternational colleges, career colleges, technical schools, religious collegesPublic state schools, Ivy League schools, community colleges, technical schools, religious colleges

Sources: NCES, Brookings Institute

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