What is the Difference Between Non-Profit and For-Profit Online Universities?

Non-profit and for-profit online universities both aim to provide quality education for their student populations. However, there is a world of difference in how their missions are carried out due to various factors that influence how the schools are managed.

Organizational Structure and Affiliations

Non-profit online universities are usually extensions of traditional brick-and-mortar academic institutions. As such, they benefit from the prestige and reputation of their traditional counterpart. These online universities may employ the same teaching staff for the online courses, so online and traditional students have equal access to the same faculty. Some courses may require attendance in some on-campus classes, giving students a taste of campus life.

For-profit online universities may or may not have physical counterparts. Even when the colleges have physical campuses, on-campus attendance is not usually a requirement for completing courses. Students have little chance of real interaction with the faculty.


For-profit online universities answer to a corporate board and to investors whose primary concern would be achieving a return on their investment. The funding for these institutions comes from the parent corporation, tuition and fees from students and government grants that cover the tuition for qualified students. Students who pursue degrees from for-profit online universities may end up with higher debt because of higher tuition at these schools.

On the other hand, non-profit online universities are accountable to a board of governors. If the online university is affiliated with a traditional college, they may have the same boards for both departments. Funding for these institutions come from government sources, tuition and fees and donations. Any funds raised by non-profit online schools are funneled back into the institution.

Curriculum and Target Populations

The courses offered at for-profit online universities are typically job-centered. These schools specialize in courses or degrees that are focused on the practical arts and sciences such as nursing and other health care fields. The curriculum is decided by a committee and the faculty implements the given syllabus with very little creative input. This makes sense with online courses where much of the instruction is pre-recorded on videos or podcasts. Additionally, the target population of for-profit online colleges is non-traditional students. These students may be holding down full-time jobs, taking care of their families and would thus require a flexible class schedule with standards that account for their unique requirements. Admission to for-profit online universities requires no more than submission of an application and payment of fees.

In contrast, non-profit online institutions provide a diverse slate of courses, covering liberal arts, fine arts and most of the courses offered on campus. The curriculum is designed by individual professors who are given much latitude in designing their courses. Non-profit universities utilize classroom technologies to a greater extent than for-profits largely because non-profits operate with a larger budget per student. The admission process for non-profit online colleges are more stringent. Usually, applicants have to comply with admission requirements that are similar to those imposed on students attending on-campus courses.

While non-profit and for-profit online universities are both viable options for preparing for a career, make sure to research the options thoroughly. The differences go beyond tuition, reputation by affiliation and the course selections offered. The methodologies of digital learning environments should be similar regardless of whether the school is for-profit or non-profit. However, the entire university experience will be different because of how the schools define their missions in the educational system.


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