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.