For Profit-Colleges Are Not Always What Media Says They Are

While many of the recent debates about for-profit companies in K-12 and higher education have reflected traditional ideological divisions between Democrats and Republicans, a closer look at federal education policy, congressional politics, and public opinion reveals that these lines in the sand are far from constant, particularly when it comes to the Democratic position.

In “More Than Meets the Eye: The Politics of For-Profits in Education,” the second report of AEI’s Private Enterprise in American Education series, AEI research fellow Andrew P. Kelly, who was recently named one of sixteen next-generation leaders in education policy, illustrates how the typical political divides do not tell the whole story when it comes to the appropriate role of for-profits in education.

Some of his findings include:
1. In K-12 education, Democrats have been amenable to for-profit involvement on policies like Supplemental Education Services and school turnarounds, where the for-profit role is limited to support services or a small subset of troubled schools.
2. In higher education, Democrats are divided on the “for-profit question.” A surprising coalition of fifty-eight Democrats–including some of the most liberal–broke ranks and joined Republicans in their effort to prevent the enforcement of proposed gainful-employment regulations.
3. At the K-12 level, roughly 75 percent of the public is supportive of for-profit contracting for peripheral services like transportation and facilities management, but only 25 to 30 percent are comfortable with for-profit management of entire school sites and instruction.
4. At the higher education level, the majority of Americans approve of for-profit colleges and universities, though they consistently see them as lower quality than public or nonprofit institutions.
Kelly argues that public attitudes toward for-profit involvement reflect a sense of risk: Americans are quite risk averse when it comes to for-profit management of K-12 schools, support private management of peripheral school services, and generally approve of for-profit colleges. Federal policies tend to mirror these preferences, reinforcing the public’s conception of what constitutes the “appropriate” role for for-profits. Going forward, the question for policymakers is whether public opinion on for-profit colleges will come to reflect the recent high-profile criticism of those institutions.

Andrew P. Kelly can be reached at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *