At a time when American public higher education is cutting budgets, laying off people, and turning away students, the rise of for-profit universities has been meteoric.

Enrollment in the country’s nearly 3,000 career colleges has grown far faster than in the rest of higher education—by an average of 9 percent per year over the past 30 years, compared with only 1.5 percent per year for all institutions, according to an industry analyst. For-profit universities now educate about 7 percent of the nation’s roughly 19 million students who enroll at degree-granting institutions each fall. And the proportion rises to 10 percent, or 2.6 million, if you count students who enroll year round. Just this academic year, the University of Phoenix eclipsed California State University as the second largest higher-education system in the country, with 455,600 students as of this month—behind only the State University of New York.

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