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Less than half of graduates from for-profit online programs report being very satisfied in a new survey. The lukewarm support highlights risks around student outcomes and investment in these programs.

The survey, conducted by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, found that only 45% of for-profit online alumni said they were very satisfied with their experience. This compares to 61% at private non-profit colleges and 64% at public colleges.

For-profit online programs also received the lowest rankings for overall satisfaction and likelihood to recommend the institution to others. This suggests the programs may struggle with key metrics that signify high quality, despite aggressive recruitment and marketing.

“While enrollment in online programs continues to grow, the support from students after they graduate is not as strong as other sectors,” said Pete Talkington, executive vice president at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. “The lower levels of satisfaction and recommendation suggest more work is needed to ensure these programs are meeting students’ needs and supporting their long-term success.”

Concerns over student debt levels, career results, and value of credentials from for-profits extend beyond surveys. There are efforts underway to implement policies protecting students, limiting predatory practices, and incentivizing transparency. Some states have banned or placed restrictions on certain for-profit colleges.

Supporters counter that for-profits expand access, innovation and choice. They also note that survey results depend on methodology and that some high-quality programs do exist. But researchers argue the sector as a whole struggles with risks to students, and that more must be done to validate benefits and prevent harms.

With growth in online learning comes opportunity and responsibility. By gaining insight into experiences, perceptions and outcomes across all providers, policymakers and leaders can work to develop standards, allocate funds and shape a system that ultimately serves learners of all backgrounds with high-quality, affordable and lifelong opportunities.

But that will require prioritizing students over profits, evidence over rhetoric, and the public good over private interests. With a commitment to these principles, for-profits could complement rather than undermine the broader effort to build an equitable and sustainable approach to higher education. But without them, the sector will continue to face criticism and calls for regulation or prohibition.

The road ahead depends on the path chosen today. By promoting proven models, preventing predatory practices and pursuing transparency and accountability, progress can be made toward an accessible, affordable and impactful solution for all. If profit dominates, students and society will pay the price.

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