Generation after generation, parents want the best for their children. We are all aware that getting a good education improves our chances of getting a good job, and attending a college or university can make our worlds bigger in many ways.
Often, in this column, we ask you to think before you buy, to consider options and compare. Getting an education may be one of the biggest “purchases” you will make in your life, and one of the most important.
When you see advertisements that offer online college classes, that promise a quick degree, the guarantee of a job upon graduation and help with getting federal student loans, be extra cautious. Many for-profit schools make promises like this without being able to back them up.
The one thing that many for-profit schools are good at is helping you secure federal student loans. You can take on considerable personal debt with these loans, with a promise to pay them back. You are responsible for all future payments, regardless of whether you finish the classes, earn a degree or are hired for the job you thought you would land. You are committed to many years of payments on those loans. It’s important to learn as much as you can about the terms and conditions of the loans before you agree. Don’t let a for-profit school’s staff convince you to make a quick decision or take out more money than you can afford to pay back.
Unlike traditional colleges, universities or community colleges, for-profit schools exist with a mission – to make as much profit as they can for their investors and shareholders. The more students these companies enroll, the more Pell Grants they receive, and the more profit they make.
Because nearly all applicants are accepted, you must consider the possibility of a subpar education taught by underqualified professors. If you are attending the school to enter a profession that requires a license, contact the licensing organization to find out what training and credentials are required and then, make sure they are offered by the school.
Most students leave for-profit colleges without a degree or a career, and with an enormous amount of debt. You can learn a lot about a school by going to the Department of Education’s College Navigator https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/, including its accreditation status, graduation rates and student loan default rates.
There is also the possibility that the school may be shut down suddenly for conducting fraudulent advertising, or may file bankruptcy. And transferring class credits from a for-profit school to another college or university is, many times, not possible. If you think you may want, or need, to transfer schools in the future, give some thought to what school you may want to transfer to and then find out if it accepts credits from the for-profit school you are thinking of attending.
You can learn more from the Federal Trade Commission at: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0395-choosing-college-questions-ask
Signs that the school may be a for-profit scam:
- Toll-free phone numbers. Ask yourself why a legitimate university would pay for all incoming phone calls
- No public email addresses
- Frequent name changes
- Somehow “established” 100+ years ago
- Over-emphasis how “fully accredited” they are
- Many passionate, negative reviews online
- A history of fraud or lawsuit
- Have “International” in their name
- A recruiter, counselor or academic advisor for the school is pressuring you to commit to the school before you have had time to research their program or understand the financial aid package.
- You are not provided information about the school that you can review before you commit.
Don’t be fooled by these educational scams. Be aware. While not all for-profit schools may be scams, it is important to be able to tell the difference between a for-profit school that wants to give you a good education and one that is a scam and just wants to take your money.
Also, before choosing a for-profit college, remember that there are alternatives. Community colleges, and vocational and trade schools, are all realistic alternatives that provide just as much, if not more, opportunity to the non-traditional student. Community colleges can help you set realistic goals and learn skills that will lead to viable career options. They can also help you develop a realistic payment plan for any loans you may need to take. Many vocational and trade schools also have programs with payment plans and hands-on education with apprenticeship opportunities, and offer class flexibility for the needs of a non-traditional student’s lifestyle.
Choosing an educational institution that you can afford can be challenging, but if you do your research, talk to friends and neighbors and career counselors, and think realistically about your finances, you are more likely to make a decision that will lead to the American Dream.
This article was written by Jonathan A. Harris, Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.