While the ideal of higher education is supposed to be above the concerns of mere money, there is nothing inherently wrong with for-profit colleges. Unless, of course, there is something inherently wrong with for-profit operations in general. As such, it should not be uncritically assumed that a for-profit college must be bad, ripping students off, or providing useless degrees. That said, the poor reputation of the for-profit colleges is well earned.
One rather tempting argument against for-profit colleges is that by being for-profit they must always charge students more or offer less than comparable non-profit colleges. After all, as the argument would go, a for-profit college would need to do all that a non-profit does and still make a profit. This would need to be done by charging more or offering less for the same money. However, this need not be the case.
Non-profit and public colleges are generally top-heavy in terms of administrators and administrative salaries. They also often expend considerable funds for amenities, sports teams and such. These “bloaters” are things that a well-run for-profit college could cut while still offering the core service of a college, namely education. For students who do not want the extras or who would rather not help fund a massive administration, this can be a win-win scenario: the student gets the education they want for less than they would pay elsewhere while the for-profit makes a profit by being efficient with its money. This is, obviously enough, the dreamy ideal of capitalism.
Sadly, the actual world sees this dream often transformed into a nightmare: for profit schools, in general, turn out to be as the Marxists that supposedly rule academia would expect: predatory and terrible. One main reason for this is that these entities are focused on making as much profit as possible and this consistently leads to the bad behavior endemic to the for-profit system. While regulation is supposed to keep the bad behavior in check, Betsy DeVos has curtailed oversight of these colleges. As a specific example, her department has stopped cooperating with New Jersey on the fraudulent activities of for-profit colleges. If the state neglects to check bad behavior, such as crossing borders illegally or welfare fraud, then people are limited only by their own values. While that can work in some cases, it is generally a bad idea to leave important matters up to the individual conscience. For example, it would be foolish for the state to just hand out welfare by simply trusting people and never verifying their claims. Likewise, it would be foolish to allow for-profit colleges to do as they wish without proper oversight.
As should be expected, I have consistently been against these terrible for-profit colleges. I also extend my opposition to terrible non-profits and public colleges: what I am against is the terrible part, not the profit part. As with much bad behavior that harms others, the most plausible solution is to have and enforce laws against that bad behavior. As noted above, those who are concerned about welfare fraud are not content to rely on the conscience of the recipients nor are they willing to simply allow an invisible hand to ensure that things work out properly. They, obviously enough, favor the creation and enforcement of laws to prevent people from committing this fraud. By parity of reasoning, for-profit colleges cannot be expected to operate virtuously with only the conscience of their owners as their guide. The invisible hand can also not be counted on to ensure that they do not engage in fraud and other misdeeds. What is needed, obviously enough, is the enforcement of the laws designed to protect taxpayers and students from being defrauded by the unscrupulous.
It could be argued that while the invisible hand and conscience cannot work in the case of, for example, welfare cheats, they work just fine in the context of business. In the case of for-profit schools, one might argue, they will fail if they do not behave well and the free market will sort things out. The easy and obvious reply is to agree that the bad colleges do fail, the problem is that they do a great deal of damage to the students and taxpayers in the process. This is a bit like arguing that society in general does not need laws, since eventually vigilantes might take care of any thieves, murderers and other threats. As Hobbes noted, the state of nature does not work terribly well.
This is not to say that I believe for-profits should be strangled by red-tape. Rather, the laws and enforcement need to focus on preventing harms like fraud. If a business model cannot succeed without including fraud and other misdeeds, then there is clearly a problem with that model.