Report shows education options expanding across U.S.

The NCES report notes that the shift in enrollment trends also has been accompanied by a change in the how coursework is delivered: At the private for-profit institutions, for example, 12 percent of students took all of their classes through distance or online education, compared to 3 percent at both public universities and private not-for-profit institutions.

Several other differences exist between the private for-profits and traditional colleges and universities. At for-profit schools, for example, 81 percent of students had loans—$9,800 on average, considerably higher than those at traditional private colleges, where 61 percent had loans. The study also shows higher default rates from the for-profit institutions.

Educational outcomes at the for-profits also were weaker: The six-year graduation rate was 22 percent at for-profits, compared to 65 percent at traditional private schools and 55 percent at public universities.

Harris Miller, chief executive and president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities—an industry lobby—said those numbers were not representative of actual graduation rates, because they only include first-time, full-time students—a category most of their students do not fit.

He said enrollment at private for-profit schools has begun to level off as the economy improves, but he expects some growth to continue.

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