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On the Hot Seat

Ask questions, do homework on for-profit colleges

Martha Coakley, Attorney general, State of Massachusetts

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Martha Coakley, Attorney general, State of Massachusetts

Getting a career begins with getting an education, and that can be a tricky proposition for many nontraditional students thinking about getting a degree or certificate in a trade. While some for-profit schools offer the moon — a lucrative career in technology or a glamorous job as a hairstylist — they charge top-dollar tuition and have questionable job placement rates.

Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating about a dozen for-profit schools in Massachusetts, examining whether they deliver on their promises. Her office also recently unveiled a website, www.mass .gov/ago/consumer-resources/consumer-information/schools-and-education/for-profit-schools/, to help prospective students. She spoke with reporter Megan Woolhouse about those efforts.

How does a consumer know which degrees will be valuable and that they’re getting what they’re paying for?

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The first place to start is with the school in terms of how they promote the school. It requires some digging with the school in terms of the number who graduate, what are their [job] placement rates and not just placement, but the job retention rates.

You should get a good answer from the institutions you’re about to put a lot of money down on. If you can’t get answers, that’s the first red flag.

How does a prospective student know if the tuition will exceed their ability to get a job in that career?

Look at the expenses involved. What is the money you need to pay over 9 months or two years and how are you going to finance that? We found that 96 percent of for-profit students have to take out loans. Be aware of the high rate of default for for-profit schools. [Ask yourself], “Is this going to be worthy of the investment, particularly if you can’t get a job or keep a job?”

How do you know whether the degree is a good value or whether it will get you a job?

A student should ask, “What is this degree going to give me other than a piece of paper? How much classroom instruction is there, and how much online, or through internships?”

Many of these schools, they advertise and solicit the program saying it will give you great training for medical careers or a high tech career. If you just watch the ad, you may end up making a big investment and find it’s not worth it.

The economy, the job market, is changing. Some of the appeal of these schools is that they can give you training in a particular area. You need to make sure what you’re taught is actually going to align with what’s happening in the market, whether its in technology, hairstyling, whatever the field.

You recently brought a lawsuit against a Brockton school, alleging it padded its graduation and job placement rates. Your office said graduates supposedly working in the medical field were unemployed or working at fast food chains. How does a prospective student figure out whether the information they’re getting is accurate?

When you’re looking at a school, tell them you want to talk to recent grads. They should make available to you alumni of the program. If you go to a not-for-profit school, you’re going to the campus, speaking with students there or people who graduated. That is the homework people do for the not-for-profit experience. They should be doing the same thing with these [for-profit] degree or certificate programs.

If they’re [for-profit schools] spinning their numbers or using inaccurate numbers, that’s a basis for a complaint with us.

Go beyond what they tell you. They should be proud of graduates of their school. They should be able to point you to people who got a job and could keep it.

Many students graduate from nonprofit colleges loaded with debt, unable to find work. Why not investigate them?

No one gets an iron-clad guarantee from a two- or four-year college that you get a job. For-profit schools focus on technical training, the idea you get a job when you get out — that you’re trained for a particular job. The for-profits pay owners and investors, many on Wall Street who invest in them because it’s so profitable. It’s the students . . . who are [losing] out on that deal.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@ globe.com.
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