I'm going to link to this article about a for-profit online college not because I agree with it (I don't), but because I want to give you a different, shall we say more practical, perspective. I think what he's writing is dangerous for students, because it's directing them to a prospect that probably won't pan out. If you have friends or young relatives who are thinking of alternative higher education, please have them think it through and really investigate the situation, and start NOT with for-profit but their own state schools.
There are plenty of reasons that prospective students might have to look beyond the traditional four-year public or private college. Maybe you live in a rural area. Maybe you screwed up in high school and barely graduated, or just have a GED. (Many soon-to-be great students, btw, weren't great successes in high school.) This is why most states have extensive community college systems, to provide an alternative track to education.
I'm a community college teacher (I also teach at a 4-year college, and I've taught at both state and private schools), and I know this: You can get a 2-year degree or two years of college, fully transferrable, fully accreditable, at most state community colleges, no funny stuff needed, for about $3000 a year (and most students qualify for federal and/or state aid, which makes it cheaper). You can take that $6000 first two years of college to most of the state's 4-years colleges and get full credit, and you'll pay more for the last 2 years, but you will still get a 4-year degree accepted as a real degree at any graduate school, the military, and any employer.
And most students don't need to go far for either in-person or online education. Most states have a community college system with transferrable credits and many, many campuses. (My own in a medium-sized state has 23 campuses.) And you can also take many of the lower-level (freshman) courses, the required ones, online either at a community college or a big state school (University of Maryland has a very extensive online system, used by many in the military-- full disclosure here-- I tutor online in their writing center). It's cheaper, of course, if you take the courses in the state where you reside (much cheaper). But there is extensive financial aid available, and extensive advice on all this, at the colleges themselves.
And when you finish, you have actual credits. I don't know if you get a great education-- though I teach online, I'm the first to say that in-person classes can be better -- but then, I think you can get a great education online at Podunk Comm College or a terrible education in-person at Harvard. It depends very much on the student's desire and willingness to work hard. I just hate to see those virtues exploited as they traditionally have been by the for-profit college education companies (I don't know if this one in the article is exploitative, but the history of the industry makes me pessimistic). Yes, non-profit colleges also engage in chicanery (I think they often make freshman classes onerous so that students will pay tuition and then drop out), but at least, if you persist, the degree is worth something. (I'm a firm believer that the purpose of all this is knowledge, wisdom, all that good stuff, but you know, my students aren't wrong to think that there should be a more pecuniary reward too. And, uh, I know from experience-- the only way they can be charging only $99 a class is by trimming teacher-student interaction to the barest minimum, which means probably there's not a lot of wisdom-transmission going on.)
The only profit that can be made from selling college education, I fear, comes by ripping off students in some way. Education isn't a profitable pursuit. It's not supposed to be, and it never has been, and it never will be.
If you know a prospective student who is unsure of how best to return to college, please suggest that he/she call the state community college and ask to speak to an admissions advisor. (They can email me, too-- email@example.com.) Most comm. colleges accept GED-- in fact, most have classes preparing you for that test-- and also help you get CLEP credit (which gets you college credit for life and occupational experience). And the advising is free, and so is the help to get financial aid. Every community college has had many thousands of students and the staff and faculty have a lot of experience working with non-traditional and returning students.
I just never want to talk to another despairing student like the young man I met last month. He'd taken 4 classes at a for-profit school. He was the first in his family to go to college and didn't have a lot of knowledge about it. He paid $4K, most of it financed by student loans. The courses couldn't be transferred. He never got the cushy job they'd suggested he would get, and he ended up defaulting on his loans... which means that he can't get any more student loans when he goes to an accredited school. He was so sad. And he felt betrayed, because here he'd tried hard to raise himself, to challenge himself, and someone exploited this to rip him off. He thought it was his own fault.
Say what you will about state universities and their monopolies and all that, and the terrible tuition increases every year (very little of which, btw, goes to teachers :). But the non-profit colleges and universities are filled with dedicated faculty and staff members. And they aren't in it to get a profit. Few of us would be working for such low pay if we didn't love students and want to help them. :)