Thirty eight years ago, I was involved in a high profile case.  A trade school was trying to collect bills from their former students; the students, even though they had completed their courses at the school, could not find jobs, and in fact found their training useless in the job market.  For the schools, suing the students was just the first step: if the students didn’t pay their costly tuition bills, then the schools could collect from the federal government, which insured the loans as part of its educational program. Meanwhile, the student would be left with an unpleasant reminder of his education: a lifetime of bad credit.

Sound familiar?  In all these years, not much has changed.  Just this month, a New York Times article summarized the findings of a recent Congressional investigation.  For profit trade schools and colleges often: (1) urge students to misstate their finances so they will be eligible for federally insured loans; (2) offer courses that range from poor to mediocre; and (3) offer little help for graduates in finding employment.  Additionally, prospective students making inquiries often find themselves phoned relentlessly by the school: one such person received over one hundred and fifty calls urging him to sign up.  No wonder daytime television is overwhelmed with advertising for these schools — they are a gold mine for their owners.

These schools are not cheap – many charge over $20,000 for the course of instruction.  Sure, some are better than others; and some do help their students find a new career.  But often the same courses of instruction can be found for little cost or free at public junior colleges or state colleges.  One example in the San Francisco Bay Area: for profit culinary colleges charge thousands of dollars, while Contra Costa College (a public, inexpensive junior college in the East Bay) has a world famous pastry chef and food service program that would cost the same prospective student very little.

To seek self-improvement and a career in a field you love is great, and you should be commended.  But make sure to do so responsibly and intelligently.  Investigate the claims of for profit schools; check with employers in your chosen field to see if they respect their degrees; and see what local public colleges have to offer in the same field.  Why start out your new career in debt if you don’t have to?  Be a smart consumer in one of the most important decisions of your life!

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Ralph L. Jacobson

Ralph Jacobson received his law degree from Stanford University in 1969. His concentration has been in personal injury for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles for the CEB Civil Litigation Reporter, a leading professional journal for attorneys.