Choosing a Vocational School
Vocational schools, also known as trade or career schools, and correspondence schools can be a great way to train for a variety of jobs. But not all these schools are reputable. Research any school you hope to attend, its training program, its record of job placement for graduates, and its fees before you commit.
What Are Vocational and Correspondence Schools?
Vocational schools and correspondence schools train students for a variety of skilled jobs, including jobs as automotive technicians, medical assistants, hair stylists, interior designers, electronics technicians, paralegals, and truck drivers. Some schools also help students identify prospective employers and apply for jobs.
While many of these schools are reputable and teach the skills necessary to get a good job, others may not be. They may promise more than they can deliver to increase enrollment — and their bottom line.
They may mislead prospective students about:
- the salary potential of jobs in certain fields
- the availability of jobs
- the extent of their job training programs
- the qualifications of their staff
- the nature of their facilities and equipment
- their connections to businesses and industries
Is a Vocational School Right For You?
To decide whether a career school is right for you, consider whether you need more training for the job you want. It's possible you can learn the skills you need on the job. Look at ads for positions that you're interested in. Then call the employers to learn what kinds of training and experience will be meaningful, and whether they recommend any particular programs.
What other options do you have?
Look into alternatives, like community colleges. The tuition may be less than at private schools. Also, some businesses offer education programs through apprenticeships or on-the-job training.
Also, compare the information from other schools to learn what is required to graduate, and what you'll get when you graduate — a certificate in your chosen field or eligibility for a clinical or other externship? Are licensing credits you earn at the school transferable?
Remember that a school is not an employment agency. No school can guarantee you a job when you graduate.
Before You Enroll
It's a good idea to do some homework before you commit to a program. You want to make sure the program you enroll in is reputable and trustworthy. Find out:
What the facilities are like
Find out as much as you can about the school's facilities. Visit in person and ask to see the classrooms and workshops. Also, ask about the types of equipment — like computers and tools — that students use for training. Is the training equipment the same that’s used in the industry? Call some companies to find out.
What the school provides
Are there supplies and tools that you must buy? If you need help overcoming language barriers or learning disabilities, find out if the school provides help, and at what cost?
Who the instructors are
Ask about the instructors' qualifications and the size of classes. Sit in on a class to observe whether the students are engaged and the teacher is interesting. Talk to other students about their experience.
What the program’s success rate is
Get some idea of the program's success rate. Ask about:
- Completion rate: what percentage of students complete the program? A high dropout rate could mean students don't like the program.
- Job placement: how many graduates find jobs in their chosen field? What is the average starting salary?
- Debt on graduation: of the recent graduates who borrowed money to attend the school, what percent are delinquent in paying back those loans?
- Students' experiences: can you get a list of recent graduates to ask about their experiences with the school?
What the total cost is
Will you pay by course, semester, or program? What about fees for dropping or adding a class? In addition to tuition, what will you pay for books, equipment, uniforms, lab fees, or graduation fees?
If you need financial assistance, find out whether the school provides it, and if so, what it offers. The U.S. Department of Education administers several major student aid programs in the forms of grants, loans, and work-study programs. About two-thirds of all student financial aid comes from these programs. Get details at studentaid.gov.
If the school is licensed and accredited
Ask for names and phone numbers of the school's licensing and accrediting organizations, and check with them to see whether the school is up-to-date.
Licensing is handled by state agencies. In many states, private vocational schools are licensed through the state Department of Education. Truck driver training schools, on the other hand, may be licensed by the state transportation department. Ask the school which state agency handles its licensing.
Accreditation usually is through a private education agency or association that has evaluated the program and verified that it meets certain requirements. Accreditation can be an important clue to a school's ability to provide appropriate training and education — if the accrediting body is reputable. Your high-school guidance counselor, principal, or teachers, or someone working in the field you're interested in, may be able to tell you which accrediting bodies have worthy standards.
You also can search online to see if a school is accredited by a legitimate organization. Two reliable sources to check are the:
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, posted by the U.S. Department of Education
- Council for Higher Accreditation database
Also find out whether two- or four-year colleges accept credits from the school you're considering. If reputable schools and colleges say they don't, it may be a sign that the vocational school is not well-regarded.
If the school gets many complaints
Check with the Attorney General's office, in the state where you live and in the state where the school is based, and with the state department of education to see whether a lot of complaints have been filed against the school. Though keep in mind that a lack of complaints may not mean that the school is without problems. Unscrupulous businesses or businesspeople often change names and locations to hide complaint histories.
Review the Contract
Before you decide on a program, read the materials carefully, including the contract. Check to see whether you can cancel within a few days of signing up and, if so, how to go about it. If the school refuses to give you documents to review beforehand, don’t enroll. A legitimate program shouldn’t pressure you to sign up.
Also, if a school official's spoken promises are different from the program's written materials, consider it a red flag. If the promises aren't in writing, the school can deny ever having made them.
Financial Aid and Loans
To pay for a vocational training program, you can apply for financial aid through the school's financial aid program. If you take out a loan, be sure you read the agreement and understand the terms of repayment before you sign. Is the lender the federal government, the school, or another private entity? Ask whether you can apply for a federal government loan; it may have better terms — find out more at studentaid.gov. Know:
- how much you are borrowing, and what the interest rate is
- when repayment begins
- how much each payment will be
- how long you have to repay the loan
You’re responsible for paying off the loan whether or not you complete the training program. If you don't pay off the loan, you may run into some serious problems. For example:
- You may not be able to get credit later on to buy a house or car, or get a credit card
- You may not be able to get a loan or grant at another school later on
- Your employer may deduct payments from your paycheck automatically to repay the loan
- The IRS could confiscate your federal tax refunds
- You could be sued for the money you owe
Report a Problem
If you’re not satisfied with the quality of the instruction or training you receive from a vocational or correspondence school, talk to faculty members or the school administration. If your dissatisfaction relates to your contract with the school, try to resolve your dispute with the school. If that doesn't work, you can file a complaint with the:
- school's accrediting organizations
- state licensing agency, state board of education, and the state's education department
- U.S. Department of Education, if you are receiving federal financial aid to pay for the school training. To file a complaint, go to ed.gov/misused or call 1-800-MIS-USED (1-800-647-8733).