It’s hard to miss the negative press about for-profit colleges.

In recent months, at least three different studies published by independent groups have accused “commercial colleges” of everything from charging egregious tuition prices to misleading students about salary prospects after graduation.

Catering to older students who balance school among jobs and family responsibilities, for-profit institutions frequently have lower admissions barriers and offer more flexible scheduling options than many nonprofit schools. Before signing up, ask these questions to make sure it’s a quality institution.

Is it reputable?

Before enrolling in any university — for-profit or otherwise — Katherine Berntzen, author of “In Pursuit of My Success For Teens: Developing a College, Career, and Money Plan For Life,” recommends doing some research in your future field.

“Go to websites of employers you would like to work for. Look at the leadership and employee profiles and find where they went to college,” says Berntzen. She also advises students to stop by their future school’s career office to research which employers actively recruit at that school and what kinds of internships, co-ops and postgraduation jobs alumni have landed.

How do prices stack up?

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office of 15 for-profit institutions, all but one charged higher tuition than nearby public colleges for the same degree programs.

“There were pretty significant cost differences,” says Gregory Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations for the GAO. “We know of some examples where a for-profit college degree was $14,000, whereas the same one at a local community college was $520.”

Costs between nonprofit schools vary wildly, too — just compare Sarah Lawrence College’s $42,600 yearly tuition price to Delaware State University’s $6,731 in-state costs. To make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, Kutz advises students to compare for-profit tuition prices with those of local community and four-year public institutions.

How many graduate?

A study by nonprofit think tank The Education Trust reports that at 22 percent, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree candidates at for-profit institutions is significantly below those at public nonprofit institutions, which boast a 55 percent graduation rate, and private institutions, which graduate 65 percent of enrollees.

At individual for-profit schools, the numbers can sink even further. The report shows that one of the largest players in the for-profit education sector, the University of Phoenix, only claimed a 9 percent graduation rate for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree candidates in 2008. The company issued a statement that if all students are considered, the six-year graduation rate rises to 38 percent.

Fortunately, researching graduation rates is easy. While schools frequently publish that information themselves, students can also look it up at CollegeResults.org. “A graduation rate of less than 50 percent could be a concern,” says Berntzen.

Will credits transfer?

“Students attending community colleges have more latitude if they choose to transfer to a bachelor’s degree (program),” says Christopher M. Mullin, program director for policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Mullin encourages students to think beyond their immediate degree program. If students are interested in seeking a higher degree later on, they can ensure that their credits will be transferable by asking local four-year or graduate schools about which institutions they accept credit from.

What will I earn after graduation?

“No one can guarantee employment, especially in this economy, and no one can guarantee a salary,” says Kutz, adding that several for-profit schools in the GAO study did exactly that.

Before getting swept up in promises of six-figure salaries, Kutz recommends that students talk to their school about their post-degree earning potential, then cross-check those figures with the ones offered through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Students can also research their local earning potential by interviewing alumni and area workers in their field.

Will I be able to pay back my student loans?

For-profit institutions have a student loan default rate that’s nearly twice that of their public nonprofit counterparts. According to the Department of Education, for-profit students accounted for 26 percent of all students borrowing in the 2008-2009 school year, but also accounted for 43 percent of all student loan defaults. Another study by Pew Research Center shows that 54 percent of graduates with a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit school owe more than $30,000 in student loans, compared to 25 percent for graduates of private nonprofit schools and 12 percent for public schools.

“Whether you can pay off your educational debt at a particular school is not a for- or nonprofit issue,” says Greg O’Brien, CEO of The CollegeBound Network, a firm that operates recruitment services for 900 educational institutions and operates 12 education-based websites. O’Brien says that because for-profit schools have high acceptance rates and flexible options, they bring in a larger body of low-income, at-risk students who are statistically more likely to default on student loans.

To minimize the chance of defaulting on student loans, O’Brien recommends that students talk with school representatives to make sure they understand the full cost of the degree program, not just one semester, and that they’re well aware of how long it will take to pay off their educational debt.

“‘Can you pay for this school?’ is a question students should be asking, regardless of the structure of the school,” he says.

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