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posted: 8/10/2012 5:00 AM

Know the pitfalls of for-profit schools

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  • Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

    Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

By Lisa Madigan

For-profit schools have been in the news a lot lately, and it generally has not been good press. In my office, we know many of the horror stories from students who have fallen victim to for-profit schools' deceptive and predatory practices. After we sued Westwood College for misleading students about the cost and quality of its criminal justice program, we heard from over 1,000 students who had sought to better themselves with advanced training but instead found themselves with as much as $70,000 in debt for a worthless degree and limited job prospects.

Unlike public universities and private, not-for-profit colleges, for-profit schools are owned by revenue-seeking businesses often more intent on boosting their bottom line than educating their students. They use hard-sell tactics to recruit prospective students, and veterans have become particular targets. After Congress authorized billions of education dollars in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a loophole in the law allowed many for-profit schools to exploit veterans' benefits as a way to maximize their revenues. A congressional study indicated that for-profit schools' revenue from veterans' benefits increased by 683 percent from 2006-2010, yet these schools post far higher dropout rates and loan default rates than public institutions. (For-profit schools account for 13 percent of all college students but represent 47 percent of all student loan defaults.)

Left unchecked, this industry promises to produce a generation of students who are undereducated and saddled with crushing debt and years of financial instability. My office continues to investigate for-profit schools, and I am working with federal officials to advocate for stronger laws to ensure that for-profit schools enrich rather than deceive the students they recruit.

But as with any major financial decision, the best way students can avoid the for-profit schools' trap is to learn about the risks. Follow these tips to ensure you do not become a victim.

Pressure tactics: Beware of any schools that promote extremely high job-placement rates or promise an impressive salary. They're likely lying. Demand specific facts on employment and graduation rates. Ask to talk to graduates about their experiences. Most importantly, do not succumb to pressure tactics or be rushed into a quick decision to enroll. Take time to compare programs, including similar programs at community colleges.

Financial aid: My lawsuit against Westwood alleges that school administrators misled students about the true cost of their education. Many students were unknowingly racking up debt at a rate of 18 percent interest through Westwood's in-house lender. Demand to know the full price tag of the program. Do not enter into an agreement you cannot afford. Take precautions to avoid institutional loans with double-digit interest rates. Remember, student loan debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. It will hang over you until it is paid.

Accreditation: Even if you can afford the price of college, you cannot afford a worthless degree. Demand to know the school's accreditation. Regional accreditation is preferable to national, particularly if you want to transfer credits. Check with the certifying association or potential employer in your field to ensure successful completion of the program will actually qualify you for that job.

My office will continue to pursue the bad actors among for-profit colleges. But by following these common-sense tips, you can avoid having your dream of higher education turn into a nightmare.

• Lisa Madigan is Illinois' attorney general.

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