6 questions to ask for-profit schools

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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