In this paper, I review the economics literature on for-profit college education in the United States, assessing what we know about institutional behavior and student outcomes after two decades of research. The many studies reviewed here reveal some consistent patterns. It is clear that for-profits compete with institutions in other sectors, yet they behave differently than their public and nonprofit counterparts. The literature is mixed on the responsiveness of the sector to labor market demands, but any responsiveness does not appear to translate to better student outcomes. The vast majority of studies on employment and earnings gains for students in for-profits find worse outcomes for for-profit students relative to similar students in other sectors. These disappointing results suggest that additional accountability measures may be warranted to protect students and taxpayers.
We draw on administrative data from the country of Colombia to assess differences in student learning in online and traditional on-campus college programs. The Colombian context is uniquely suited to study this topic, as students take an exit examination at the end of their studies. We can therefore directly compare performance on the exit exam for students in online and on-campus programs both across and within institutions, degrees, and majors. Using inverse probability weighting methods based on a rich set of background characteristics coupled with institution-degree-major fixed effects, our results suggest that bachelor’s degree students in online programs perform worse on nearly all test score measures (including math, reading, writing, and English) relative to their counterparts in on-campus programs. Results for shorter technical certificates are more mixed. While online students perform significantly worse than on-campus students on exit exams in private institutions, they perform better in SENA—the main public vocational institution in the country.