Critics charge that for-profit schools are accepting unqualified students.

Critics charge that for-profit schools are accepting unqualified students.

In a move that might trickle down to the rest of the for-profit education market, the University of Phoenix—the nation’s largest provider of online college classes—says it will offer new students a free, three-week trial program to see if they are ready for its curricula and for online instruction in an effort to weed out those at risk of leaving school before earning a degree.

The announcement comes as the federal government ramps up its regulation of for-profit colleges and universities, an industry that critics say preys on many students and leaves them with hefty debt loads and meager job prospects.

But Apollo Group Inc., the company that runs the University of Phoenix, says this change—and others the company will make as it seeks to comply with new federal guidelines—likely will result in fewer opportunities for lower-income students.

The university also says it will take a big hit to enrollment—and its bottom line—as it tightens its admission practices.

The number of lower-income students enrolled at for-profit colleges has surged in the past few years. Big advertising budgets drew those trying to bolster their resumes as a hedge against high unemployment.

But critics claim the schools are not helping students find better jobs, and they say enrollment counselors sign up many who are unprepared for higher education and for online instruction. When these students drop out, they are still stuck paying back their student loans.

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