The Evolution of For-Profit Colleges in an Increasingly Competitive Landscape

January 16, 2019 Charlene Sterphone

college degree

There seem to be more options than ever before for students seeking college degrees. Higher education institutions are increasing their offerings with campus-based, online, hybrid, full-time and part-time programs for both traditional and non-traditional students. These increased options have led to a highly competitive landscape for higher education institutions, particularly among for-profit colleges.

Competition from a Variety of Sources Is Increasing for For-Profit Colleges

Online education, which had long been tied to for-profit colleges, has exploded in popularity. Once viewed as a sub-par “one-size-fits-all endeavor,” online education has grown in acceptance over time, as evidenced by the University of Pennsylvania offering the first Ivy League fully online bachelor’s degree, announced in late 2018.

Many traditional schools are partnering with OPMs (online program management companies) to bring courses and degree programs online. Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton, said of OPMs, “They can bring a lot of people and a lot of resources to bear relatively quickly in areas where it would take the universities a long time to staff up and staff up well.” The relative speed and ease of bringing campus-based programs online has lowered the barrier to entry for many traditional schools, allowing them to compete directly with for-profits for online students on a national and international scale.

The rise of MOOCs has also been eating away at for-profit college marketshare, with 78 million students worldwide enrolled in at least one MOOC in 2017. A 2017 study found that, although fewer first-time students were taking classes, those pursuing credentials and spending money on MOOCs increased, representing a departure from the original free model many MOOCs began with. In 2018, the largest MOOC provider, Coursera, announced its first online bachelor’s degree, the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, joining its two master’s offerings, one developed in partnership with the University of Illinois.

How Has Increased Competition Impacted For-Profit Colleges?

Increasing competition from the nonprofit sector, MOOCs and within the for-profit market has posed a challenge for many for-profit institutions, with overall for-profit enrollments declining over the past several years. For many for-profit colleges, the competition proved insurmountable and led to closures. The number of for-profit colleges dropped by nearly 20 percent over four years, from 3,436 in 2014-2015 to 2,791 in 2017-2018, with many high-profile for-profit chains among the recent closures. There have also been numerous mergers among for-profit schools, as they look to partner with other institutions in order to continue to serve their students and produce efficiencies of scale.

Recently, there has been a shift among some for-profits to reestablish themselves as nonprofits, which according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal article would “make them subject to less federal oversight and shed the often-maligned ‘for-profit’ designation.” Schools considering the switch believe converting their tax status “would free up more money to educate students and redirect government scrutiny.”

What Can For-Profit Colleges Do to Persevere in this Competitive Landscape?

Marketers at for-profit colleges are faced with a challenge in the current competitive climate, but there are strategies they can employ to help persevere.

Differentiate to Stand Out from the Competition

One of the simplest ways to rise above the competition is to stand out from the crowd. That may come from highlighting niche programs, like ECPI University’s Mechatronics program or Capella University’s MS in Information Assurance & Cybersecurity. Focusing on a niche audience, potentially via geotargeting, can help marketers target students in areas with greater brand recognition and focus on prospective students most likely to convert into enrollments.

Test More Innovative Recruitment Techniques


For both traditional and non-traditional students, the decision about which college to attend often involves more factors than just the program offerings and costs — prospective students are interested in understanding the full “college experience.” Virtual reality (VR) can give prospective students, especially those interested in campus-based or hybrid programs, an idea of what to expect at different campus locations. The Savannah College of Art and Design sent Google Cardboard headsets to prospective students, enabling them to experience the buzz of an art studio in a very personal way. Marketers can also leverage ways to make students who love their schools their ambassadors, whether by highlighting a student blogger community, YouTube videos or active alumni forums and events.

Diversify Your Media Mix

Having the right mix of media channels on your campaign can help expand your reach and put you in front of new prospective student audiences. Aside from more traditional data/form lead generation campaigns, promoting your institution via branded email, click-to-call and SMS campaigns can provide new engagement opportunities at scale.

Use Marketing Spend as Efficiently as Possible

Optimizing your marketing budget is important at any time, but it becomes essential when faced with fierce competition. Focusing on the right metrics and knowing how to optimize them, particularly for lead generation, can make or break a campaign. The lead management platform Sparkroom offers robust reporting capabilities that can integrate pre- and post-lead metrics and provide insights as granular as keyword or zip code level performance, enabling marketers to optimize for the lowest cost per start.

Reimagine Your Next Steps in Education Marketing

In the current competitive landscape for for-profit colleges, partnering with the right lead generation providers is key. DMS Education is an industry leader in matching schools with students who enroll and graduate. Using an extensive portfolio of owned-and-operated, education-focused properties and a diversified, multi-channel media mix, DMS Education provides predictable and reliable education leads at scale.

Contact DMS today to learn more about what DMS Education can do for you.

About the Author

Charlene Sterphone

Charlene Sterphone, Director of Marketing A focused and highly motivated creative thinker, Charlene Sterphone develops, executes and reports on strategic marketing programs surrounding lead generation, paid search, email, social media, mobile targeting, SEO and compliance as Director of Marketing for Digital Media Solutions (DMS). Throughout her diversified marketing career, Charlene has spent time in both the agency and direct corporate and start-up settings, including positions at Sparkroom, Education Dynamics and CBS Corporation, where she has seen success with digital and traditional marketing campaigns. As an analytical marketer, Charlene enjoys discovering new and innovative tools and techniques and using them to drive growth.

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