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Don’t Eliminate For-Profit Graduate Schools From Your Search—Here’s Why

Don’t Eliminate For-Profit Graduate Schools From Your Search—Here’s Why
Does this institution offer something that no other place offers, by way of subject matter? Image from Unsplash
Katherine J. Igoe profile
Katherine J. Igoe December 5, 2019

Take the Sotheby’s Institute, for example. A degree in some specialized aspect of the art world would carry weight if you intend to work for an auction house, gallery, or museum.

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Unfortunately, when you hear the words "for-profit university," you might immediately think “scam." Thanks to the well-publicized trial of Trump University that required a $25 million payout to its students, a for-profit institution has become somewhat synonymous with a useless educational experience designed to cost the most money for the least benefit. Furthermore, the majority of well-known, competitive institutions like Harvard and Yale are nonprofits. If “legitimate" schools are nonprofit, for-profit colleges and universities must be worthless, right?

The numbers also indicate problems. A recent Brookings report indicated that for-profit universities have lower graduation rates and higher tuition than their nonprofit counterparts, and that they often attract individuals with lower income who receive federal subsidization for their loans but may struggle to pay off their debt.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause entirely. Like so many things, it depends on the institution and context. In the early 2000s, I went to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, which is a for-profit institute that’s run inside the Sotheby’s auction house, to get a master’s degree in art business. There are programs in fine and decorative art and design as well as contemporary art, which allow for someone to hone a specialty. But this program was geared towards the marketing, law, and business of the art world—a broad, multilayered subject.

So was it worth it, to get this encompassing degree from this for-profit graduate school? Read on.

What’s a for-profit institution, anyways?

A for-profit institution, in a nutshell, is run like any other business—which is designed to make its stockholders money. In other words, the focus is less on you as a student and more on you as a customer who pays for something. In a nonprofit institution, the focus is on the students’ education first and foremost, and not about turning a profit.

With that said, nonprofit colleges and universities can be rich with endowments and high tuition rates (the latter of which is partially because of declining state funding and increased operational costs). Within a university system, many offer expensive certificates and/or non-degree programs that can be highly profitable.

With any educational experience, you are the client. Don’t let the rigorous applications fool you—at the end of the day, you are paying for an education. And if you’re paying the full price tag (upwards of $50,000 a year, in some cases), you’d better get your money’s worth. Granted, a for-profit institution requires an extra level of scrutiny, but there still may be value—so long as you know the full story.

What to look for, and what to avoid, in a for-profit institution

Your decision-making process comes down to three major concepts: cost, flexibility, and value:

  • Does this institution offer something that no other place offers, by way of subject matter?
  • Does the institution offer the necessary flexibility that no other institution offers you?
  • Would you get value for the money—and would you be able to pay off your loans once you have a job?
  • As a secondary aspect, is the institution concerned and invested in your welfare as a student, instead of just profit?

Research (and not just on the institution’s website, but news stories and comparison tools) can help answer these questions:

  • Find graduation and success rates—although note that the latter can be subjective. Look carefully at tuition costs in comparison with nonprofit institutions that offer the same thing.
  • Check class schedules, as more and more nonprofit institutions are slowly beginning to offer online programs and programs for adult learners, so flexibility isn’t limited to for-profit colleges anymore.
  • Look for reviews from people who actually attended that college or university on a third-party (but verified) website.

Depending on the program, you might gain specialized knowledge that you wouldn’t elsewhere. Take the Sotheby’s Institute, for example. A degree in some specialized aspect of the art world would carry weight if you intend to work for an auction house, gallery, or museum. Granted, those jobs can have low salaries, but they’re also highly competitive. If an employer understands that you know the ins and outs of the art world, it may give you a leg up. So, it could offer value—but only if you have your heart set on the career path.

How to find the graduate program that works best for you

In my case, a specialized degree wasn’t directly beneficial to me for a few reasons: first, I graduated in New York near the 2008 recession, during a particularly tumultuous time in the national and global economy. Unable to find a job during that time, I switched careers entirely and found a job wherever I could get one (high-net-worth banking, for a few years, before I switched career paths again).

Secondly, I hadn’t had much career development in my undergraduate majors (English and art history) so I couldn’t spot a path forward in my creative dreams, nor did I know exactly what I wanted to do. My vague hopes about doing communications and marketing for a museum dried up with the recession—those roles require a lot of work and networking to obtain, and I wasn’t sure I would love it passionately. In my current career as a writer and editor, I do sometimes write about art and the art world, but I don’t use my degree directly.

However, I have many former classmates who pursued successful careers at Sotheby’s, galleries, and various other art institutions around the United States. Just because it wasn’t a good fit for me doesn’t mean it wasn’t a productive experience for them. They had a stronger sense of where they wanted their creative careers to go.

In a larger sense, I did gain some beneficial insight into markets, business jargon, and marketing/sales practices that are useful across industries. And it’s worth noting that I got that private banking job because of my graduate degree; the thinking was that because I studied art business, I knew about the high-net-worth client—which I did. So the degree did work for me, just not in the ways I expected.

The point is that if that’s what I had wanted, that degree program at a for-profit institution would have worked for me. But don’t go into any program blind—and pay particular attention if the institution is for-profit. Do your research, understand the pros and cons, and make the best decision for you and your career.

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