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Choosing a Vocational School or Certificate Program

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Vocational schools, also known as trade or career schools, and certificate programs can be a great way to train for a variety of jobs. But not all of these programs are useful or legit, so it’s important to do your research before picking a program

What Are Vocational Schools and Certificate Programs?

Vocational schools and certificate programs train students for skilled jobs, including automotive technicians, medical assistants, hair stylists, certified nursing aids, electronics technicians, paralegals, and truck drivers. Some schools also help students find possible employers and apply for jobs.

While many of these schools are legit 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 profits.

They may mislead would-be students about:

  • How much money students can make in certain industries
  • How easy it is to get a job, and how many are available
  • The qualifications of school staff
  • How new and advanced their facilities and equipment are
  • Their connections to businesses and industries

Is a Vocational School or Certificate Program Right For You?

Think about whether you need more training for the job you want. Maybe you can learn the skills you need on the job. To find out, look at ads for the kinds of jobs you’re interested in. Call those employers and ask what kinds of training and experience would be helpful. Ask, too, whether they recommend any particular programs.

There are also a few free online tools that can help you compare programs, including TrainingProvidersResults.gov and College Scorecard. These websites can help you compare programs by costs, program completion rates, and post-graduate employment rates.

Also, compare the information from multiple schools to learn what is required to graduate, and what you’ll get when you graduate. For example, will you get a certificate in your chosen field or become eligible 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.

What Other Options Do You Have?

Look into alternatives. Some community colleges offer professional training programs that might give you the experience, degree, or certification you need. And community college tuition may be less than at private vocational schools. Some businesses offer education programs through apprenticeships or on-the-job training. Do some research and talk with people in the field. Find out if apprenticeships are an option for you.

If you’re considering a four-year university, use the Department of Education’s college search tool — College Scorecard — to find and compare colleges and career schools that fit your goals.

Before You Enroll

Do some homework before you commit to a program. You want to make sure the program you choose is reputable, trustworthy, and worth the time and money you’re about to invest. A good place to start is TrainingProvidersResults.gov. There you can search for training programs near you, and see their employment and completion rates.

When you do your research, find out:

  • What the facilities are like. Visit in person and ask to see the classrooms and workshops. 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 employers to find out.
  • What the school provides. Would you have to buy supplies and tools? Would the school provide them? Does the school pay for licensing costs, or would that be an extra expense that you’d have to cover?
  • 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.
  • 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, and are leaving with debt and no degree or certificate.
    • Job placement: How many graduates find jobs in their chosen field? What is the average starting salary?
    • Debt at graduation: How much debt did recent graduates owe and what percent are late in repaying those loans? Comparing the average debt to the average income can help you figure out if the school is setting you up for success.
    • Students’ experiences: Can you get a list of recent graduates to ask about their experiences with the school?
  • If there’s pressure to enroll. Before you settle on a program, read its written materials, including any contracts. Can you cancel within a few days of signing up? If so, do the materials tell you how to cancel? If the school won’t give you documents to review before you commit, don’t enroll. Period.

It’s great to find a school that wants you to come. But is a recruiter or advisor for the school rushing you to commit? Are they leaning on you to decide before you have a chance to research the program and confirm the details of financial aid? Recruiters, sometimes called “counselors” or “academic advisors,” may be paid based on the number of students they bring in. So be sure the school, its program, and the cost is right for you, regardless of the rush.

  • If the school gets many complaints. Contact the state department of education and the state attorney general’s office where the school is based. Ask if there have been a lot of complaints filed against the school. Remember that few or no complaints does not mean that the school doesn’t have problems — bad businesses or businesspeople often change names and locations to hide their complaint histories.
    • The total cost
    • Will you pay by course, semester, or program?
    • Are there 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 help paying for school, check out your options in the FTC’s article, How Student Loans Work and How To Avoid Scams.

Accreditation and Licensing

If a school is accredited, it means that an independent organization (recognized by the Department of Education) looked over the classes and programs at the school, and said that it meets minimum academic standards. Look for schools that are accredited because it’s an important sign that your education will be recognized by future employers and other educational institutions. Check if your school is accredited by searching on this Department of Education tool. Another easy way to tell if a school is accredited is to see if it offers federal financial aid. If it does, it’s accredited.

Federal student aid programs (like federal grants, work study, and federal loans) can make your education a lot more affordable, and offer better financing terms, so you’ll want to use these programs if you can.

Ask your school’s admissions office which state agency handles its licensing, and check with that office that the school’s license is up-to-date. Most states have laws requiring that career colleges and technical schools be licensed or certified to offer classes and programs. A license, like accreditation, is another sign that a program is legitimate, and may be something that future employers or educational institutions look at.

Paying for Your Program

Many vocational education and certification programs offer financial aid to help you pay for your education. Ask whether you can apply for a federal student loan; it may have better terms than loans from banks or other private sources — find out more by reading How Student Loans Work and How To Avoid Scams. Review the financial aid package with this financial aid offer tool to see if its affordable. Be sure you read the loan agreement and understand how you’ll have to repay the money before you sign.

Report a Problem

If you’re not satisfied with the quality of the instruction or training you get from a vocational or certification program, talk to faculty members or the school administration. If you’re unhappy about 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
  • 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)

If you’ve been misled about a school or certificate program, report it to:

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