For-Profit Colleges: Good Investment in Your Career or Huge Scam?

BlogHer Original Post

Step into my parlor said the spider to the fly.

The actors in the for-profit school commercials push the right buttons, both cultural and emotional. Make the call. Get trained. Create a new life.

The parlor of the for-profit academic, career and vocational training schools is an expensive one. In one form or another, U.S. tax payers fund the billion-dollar industry price tag for students attending these institutions.

As pointed out in an episode of the PBS series Frontline: College,Inc., if you have a pulse and are eligible for state and federal financial aid, there is a place for you at a for-profit school. You can watch the full episode online or listen to an audio version on iTunes.

Juicing the System

A capper is a person that entices new prospects to the bait (training or a new career) that hooks the chump to the main squeeze (the for-profit school) to extract the money via federal or private student loans.

Educational cappers have been on the streets for years. Cappers are not particular about who they recruit. After all, they get a percentage of the take for signing up students. The schools are not that selective either; it is just another body in the seat that can be added to the profit margin.

The recruitment process is relentless. In addition to commercials on broadcast and cable television, many for-profit schools bombard the Internet in keyword trigger ads surrounding any topic or post concerning education.

There is an abundance of education spam blogs and Web sites. Many times, these sites are affiliate link bait or are advertorials for businesses. It is almost impossible for a novice user or career seeker to find authentic voices and reliable information without encountering a hidden or not-so-hidden sales pitch.

It should be much easier and transparent. It is not. That is unfortunate, because there are legitimate for-profit academic, career and vocational schools. The industry has much clean-up work to do before they can be considered viable beyond their stockholders' bottom line.

Here are a few ideas you can use to help you make an decision about investing in your education.

1. Time Is on Your Side in Selecting the Right School

Most of the offers you see advertised indicate that there is a sense of urgency. You have to act now, do it now or this is the time to start your brand-new life. The only one interested in you starting today is the school. Take as long as you need to make a informed decision.

The Federal Trade Commission has a good information sheet on Choosing a Career or Vocational School.

You also want to spend time at the U.S. Department of Education’s site on selecting a Career College or Training School.

2. Research Your Career Options and Realities

You should not make a career decision based on a reality TV show or a 15-second commercial.

O'Net Online is an free career resource to help identify jobs and careers. You can check out potential careers or find a career that matches your interests. O'Net goes deep into what is really involved in the job or career choice.

For example, let's say you really do want to be a chef. O'Net can show you that being a chef is more than slicing and dicing food. It is working with computers to budget, plan and work with various supply vendors. It can also give you a clue about average wages, which might not cover the cost of a $50,000 student loan anytime soon.

There is also the Bureau of Labor Statistics Career Guide to Industries, which will tell you the straight scoop about actual earning in hundreds of professions.

Find professional associations, Web sites and affinity groups that will give you an idea what to expect. Potential chefs will want to find places like the International Association of Culinary Professional.

When in doubt, ask a librarian to help you find industry, trade and association resources.

3. Identify Potential Schools

Don't sign up for the first joint that will take you! You need to identify at least three or more schools that can provide quality instruction.

You should know if your local community college offers the same classes or not. How much will it cost compared to the other school?

Is there an online option? Are the classes you take transferable? Will they be acceptable for the certification and license examination? Will employers accept your degree? You need to know before you sign on the dotted line.

4. Can You Afford Going To School?

How much is the tuition for you to complete your time of study? Be cautious with any school's Web site that refuses to tell you how much a course of study costs or encourages you to contact the financial aid office. I'd bet cash money most of the aid is in a form of private and/or federally backed loans.

Many of the career and vocational institution Web sites do not post the tuition for courses of study. You need to know how much debt you could be stuck with if you do or do not complete the program.

The National Center for Education Statistics has a table that shows the cost of education at two- and four-year public and private schools. It isn't cheap.

It isn't just about tuition. There may be equipment, clothing, software or specialized textbooks. Oh, and don't forget living expenses and emergencies.

There is so much more to share, but at least this will get you started. The cappers and the bad for-profit schools are busy recrafting their sales pitches. A few more suckers are going to sign on the dotted line.

Don't be one of them.

Related Reading About For-Profit Schools:

Cajun at My Belleville University Experience blog has a post on the for-profit schools and echoes my desire for tuition transparency.

The Career College Association puts a positive spin on the Frontline program. This is an association of independent career and vocational schools.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an in-depth article on how the for-profit schools has forced changes to traditional academic programs.

Ian Lamont's 2007 post about the University of Phoenix is still generating passionate comments for and against the institution.

Editor's Note (5/21/2010): Rules Would Cut Federal Aid to For-Profit Colleges.

Gena Haskett is a BlogHer CE. Blogs:Out On The Stoop and Create Video Notebook

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