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Career Schools: Do Some Homework Before You Enroll

A computer training program promised a new future for students who completed its course and obtained certification. Students paid or borrowed thousands in tuition, but then found that classes were postponed, teachers were not prepared, and equipment was out of date. Then the school closed and students found out it was not licensed, so they had no way to get their money back.

A cosmetology student was told that she would have to make up 50 hours of missed class time in order to qualify for her licensing exam. She had to pay several hundred dollars extra. The charges were explained in her enrollment contract, but she had not read it and compared charges with other cosmetology schools before she enrolled.

If you are considering enrolling in a career school, also known as a trade or vocational school, choose carefully. While some of these schools can prepare you for a new career, others will just put you in debt.

In some cases, career schools promise they'll train and find jobs for all students who enroll. They help students secure federal education loans to cover tuition. The schools then provide worthless training and fail to find the student a job. But the student still must repay the loan.

What to Look for

Before you choose a school, take the time to research your options. You will be spending hundreds to thousands of dollars, so making sure that the school you choose will give you the training you need will be time well spent.

First, talk to people employed in the field you're interested in and find out what type of training you need and what type of equipment you should be trained on. Ask how long a program should be to cover the material fully. For example, some schools now offer computer certification courses that are as short as five days. For many people, a five-day training course will not prepare them to pass a certification exam or qualify for employment. Ask someone in the field what they think.

Then, evaluate schools by finding out the following items. If a school is unwilling or claims it is unable to provide the information, it may be a scam.

1. Has the school and the program you are interested in been licensed to operate by the Maryland Higher Education Commission? You can call the Commission at (410) 260-4500 for the list of all approved private career schools in Maryland, or visit the Commission's website at www.mhec.state.md.us. Choosing an approved school may give you some recourse if you need to have your money refunded.

2. How long has the school been in business? What percentage of students complete the program? Although the school might require an entrance exam, don't assume all students are qualified or that the school is selective. These schools are profit-making businesses.

3. What is the school's placement record? What is the licensure/certification rate for its graduates? Don't believe claims that 100 percent of its students are placed in jobs. Ask for names of companies with which the school has placed graduates. Call those companies to confirm the hirings and to see what they think of the training those students received. The Maryland Higher Education Commission keeps information on placement and licensure rates as reported by each licensed school. Also, find out if the school offers placement assistance. Many schools do.

4. Talk to current students and past graduates (ask the school for names).Contact them outside of the school so you can have a confidential conversation about their opinion of the school.

5. Ask to observe classes and instructors. How large are the classes? Are they taught by people with recent work experience?

6. Is the school's equipment the type that is used in the industry? Will you have access to equipment during and after classes?

7. How much does the program cost? Get a schedule of the program costs, which will include the tuition, fees, and charges for books, supplies, special equipment, and any extras.

8. Ask about financial aid. Find out if scholarships or deferred payment plans are available, if students are eligible for federal student grants or loans, and if the school is approved for veterans educational benefits.

9. Ask about the school's refund policy. By law, private career schools in Maryland must refund tuition to students on a pro-rated basis. The later you withdraw, the less money you get back. If you withdraw after the half-way point, the school doesn't have to refund any of your money.

Take Your Time Before Enrolling

Don't sign anything on your first visit. And don't make a hasty decision because someone tells you there is limited space in the next class - this is a common sales ploy. Even if it's true, you'd be better off researching the school and waiting for the next class than paying for the last seat in a class where you won't learn any real skills.

Review the enrollment contract carefully before signing. It is a legally binding contract. Ask someone whose advice you trust to review it with you. Make sure the contract specifically explains how much the program will cost, how long it will last, and what the school's refund policy is. Get a receipt for all payments and keep a copy of the contract and any other application or enrollment documents. Keep copies of all promissory notes, loan documents, and financing agreements.

If you have selected your school carefully, you should receive the training you paid for. If you do have a dispute with a school, the Maryland Higher Education Commission will take complaints after you have attempted to resolve the problem. If the school has been accredited, you may also make a complaint to the accrediting organization.

Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division
Consumer hotline: (410) 528-8662 or 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free


Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372
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