Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Camille Z. Charles

Second Advisor

Grace Kao


For-profit colleges now enroll about one in ten US college students. Their rapid expansion in the last two decades raises several questions about the role that they play in educational inequality. Broadly, this dissertation asks whether for-profit colleges help or hinder the students that they serve. I evaluate the relationship between for-profit colleges and social mobility at three critical junctures along the pathway through college and into young adulthood. First, why do students, in particular those with high levels of prior academic achievement, choose to enroll in for-profit colleges? Next, what impact do for-profit colleges have on the routes that students take to their bachelor's degree? What impact do these schools have on the transfer pathway – the link between two-year colleges and four-year bachelor's degree-granting schools? Lastly, how do graduates with for-profit bachelor's degrees fare when entering the labor market?

I answer these questions using three nationally representative data sources: one which follows high school students as they progress through college (ELS 2002), another that tracks beginning college students as they move through school and transition to the workforce (BPS 2004-2008), and a third which surveys new bachelor’s degree graduates as they transition into their early careers (B&B 2008-2012). I find that all students frequently cite programmatic reasons to justify choosing for-profit colleges, but for high achieving students, a lack of individual and familial social capital may help explain why they choose for-profit education. I also find that two-year college students who begin college at for-profit schools are less likely to transfer to four-year colleges, for-profit or otherwise. Even among students who expect to transfer to a four-year college, those who start college at for-profit schools are less likely to make this transfer. Lastly, I find that Black and Asian-American for-profit bachelor’s degree holders earn significantly less than their same-race peers with non-profit degrees. The data suggest that for-profit colleges, narrowly defined, have had a largely negative effect on social mobility, particularly for disadvantaged groups.