2011-03-18 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER The value of a good education cannot be overestimated. Those with a solid base of knowledge in their chosen field of work and training in the latest skills and techniques are more likely to be hired or promoted. As with any major decision, prospective students should do their research and shop around to find a suitable program. Those considering a for-profit college or university should also be aware that several reports have raised concerns about the business practices and academic standards of some of these institutions. While most for-profit schools, which offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, industry-specific certificates, and technical training, are honest and ethical in their dealings, it is important to keep an eye out for those that employ questionable practices. The following tips can help you avoid potential pitfalls before signing on the dotted line.

First, when considering a for-profit college, it is important to make sure that the institution is accredited. Ask the recruiter which agency provided the accreditation, and contact the agency to confirm. The United States Department of Education maintains a database of postsecondary schools that have been accredited by approved agencies, which is available at: p://ope.ed.gov/accredita tion/.

Since unaccredited degrees are not acceptable to most employers or other colleges, determining a school’s accreditation status is critical. Be particularly wary of unaccredited schools that offer extremely short and inexpensive degree programs.

These entities, which often pose as legitimate colleges, are commonly referred to as “diploma mills.” Any college claiming it will grant a degree upon completion of a single test or based mainly on life experience is most likely illegitimate.

Second, beware of the hard sell. An August 2010 investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that some recruiters used high-pressure tactics on GAO investigators posing as prospective students, such as one recruiter that encouraged the investigator to sign a contract before speaking with a financial aid representative and another that grossly over-estimated the earning potential of graduates during the sales pitch.

Deciding which institution to attend is a serious undertaking that should not be rushed. If you feel un-comfortable, tell the recruiter you need more time to think and walk away.

Third, as part of your research, you should determine the price of similar programs at other schools, including non-profit institutions, such as community colleges, to ensure that the tuition is comparable and fair.

The GAO reported that one college it investigated offered a certification program in massage therapy for $14,000, which contrasted sharply with a similar program at a nearby community college that would have cost $520.

Lastly, be sure to request as much information about the program, such as its duration, cost, and graduation rate, as you may need to make your decision, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

For additional tips on avoiding diploma mills, you can view the Federal Trade Commission’s brochure on the subject at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/ pubs/ consumer/alerts/alt149.shtm.

For more information about the postsecondary school accreditation process, you may visit the United State Department of Education’s website on the topic at: http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/.

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