Sector Overview

With nearly 3,000 private-sector, postsecondary institutions serving upwards of 3.2 million students across the United States, more Americans now have the opportunity to train for high-demand career fields that will help the United States regain its competitive advantage in a global economy.

Private-sector institutions are taking on a greater role in educating the nation’s workforce, as the demand for well-trained workers has increased in rapidly growing fields across the country. These institutions serve largely adult learners who seek an alternative to traditional four-year universities. Adult learners are the new face of higher education. Most students in higher education no longer fit the traditional mold. Only 16 percent of national higher education enrollments are 18- to 22-year-old full-time undergraduates residing on a campus.

Private-sector institutions appeal to adult learners because they offer flexible schedules, career-focused learning, accelerated programs and career placement support. Private-sector postsecondary schools also offer a range of programs from diplomas and certificates to associate degrees and bachelor’s and master’s degrees to doctoral degrees.

Most private-sector postsecondary institutions are nationally or regionally accredited by accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.


The private-sector serves a diverse student body and typically serves students who have been underserved by traditional higher education, including lower-income students and racial or ethnic minorities.

Private-sector students are predominantly working adults looking to obtain an education directly related to their career goals. Forty percent are minorities and almost 50 percent are the first generation in their families to pursue higher education. More than 75 percent of the students are financially independent while they are enrolled in school.

Overall, graduation rates at private-sector institutions are higher than at other comparable institutions. Three years after enrollment, students at less than two-year, private-sector postsecondary institutions have a higher completion rate (44 percent) than students at community colleges (17 percent). Sixty-five percent of private-sector students completed their program within six years after enrollment compared to 39 percent of public, two-year students. Additionally, 76 percent of private-sector students who graduated in 2005 were employed directly following graduation.


Private-sector institutions provide diverse educational opportunities for students interested in receiving career-specific training in more than 200 occupational fields, including allied health, business, criminal justice, information technology, interior design, nursing, and visual and performing arts. Many private sector institutions have business advisory councils that help shape curricula and develop programs to meet growing and shifting workforce demands.

Private-sector institutions understand that the focus of employers today is on skills, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that 90 percent of the nation’s fastest growing jobs require some form of postsecondary education. Occupations requiring postsecondary career training are expected to significantly increase by 2018, particularly in high-growth occupations in the fields of allied health, information technology and criminal justice. Currently, private-sector institutions are meeting this need by enrolling more students (44 percent) in high-demand fields than do public (18 percent) and private, non-profit (13 percent) institutions.


In today’s struggling economy, record numbers of Americans are turning their sights to higher education. The Obama administration asked every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, setting an ambitious goal for our nation to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

As more people seek nontraditional educational opportunities, private-sector institutions continue to grow and fill a need left by underfunded, nonprofit higher education. This growth is fueled by the flexible schedules, accelerated programs and other services offered by private-sector institutions to meet the unique needs of their student body. Traditional four-year schools—where funding cuts have resulted in larger class sizes, faculty and program cuts, and tuition hikes—do not offer the level of customized support that today’s adult learners desire.

At private, nonprofit universities, tuition costs continue to rise as endowments shrink. Unfortunately, the situation is the same at community colleges and state universities—where public subsidies have failed to keep pace with rising demand. At community colleges across the nation, where enrollment has been growing faster than at four-year institutions, federal funding has held virtually steady for the past 20 years.

These cuts are depriving many Americans of the ability to advance professionally, even in some of the nation’s fastest growing occupations. The ability to quickly adapt to market needs positions private-sector institutions to offer individuals the opportunity to attain the higher education they need to advance their careers and improve their lives.

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