Career schools may go by many different names. They may be known as career colleges, career schools, trade schools, technical schools, or vocational schools, e.g.. By whatever name, a career school is an educational institution whose purpose is to prepare students for work in a specific profession or job (for example, auto mechanic, hair dresser, medical technician, ultrasound technician, etc.). As such, career schools typically provide job-specific academic coursework, occupation-specific training, and work-based learning, often coupled with internships (externships).
Career schools may be secondary or post secondary educational institutions. They may be public, private non-profit, or private for-profit schools. Career schools provide courses of study that may lead to an industry-recognized credential or certificate, a degree (non-traditional), certificate, or a traditional degree such as an associate or baccalaureate degree. They also typically prepare students to take any industry or government recognized or required certification or licensing examinations.
As of 2004, over 15 million students were enrolled in vocational and technical education programs (Report to Congress on State Performance Program Year 2003-2004, U.S. Department of Education). Over 40 million adults engage in some form of short-term post secondary occupational training (Career and Technical Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education).
Career schools are looked upon favorably by roughly half of the parents of high school juniors and seniors. 59% of moms and 47% of dads see career schools as a superior alternative for the modern economy (Public Attitudes about Career Colleges, Inside Imagine America Newsletter, Imagine America Foundation, Winter 2006). Career college students are predominantly working adults. More than 75% of career college students are employed while attending school (The Career College Sector in America: Meeting the Needs of the 21st Century Workforce, Career College Association).
Career schools can prepare students for a very wide and diverse array of professions. Because of this, it is important for students to carefully evaluate their career objectives, and the various educational means of achieving those objectives.
The best place to begin is with a little self examination. An individual should understand their own motivations for wanting to pursue a given profession. They should understand if the profession is consistent with their work and life goals. Once comfortable with their own motivations, the individual should move on to assess the profession itself.
Assessing the Profession
Once comfortable with their own motivations, the prospective student should take some time to evaluate the profession. They should learn as much as they can about the career. They should understand:
- The job market for the profession
- The income potential for the profession
- The profession's work environment
- The potential for personal and professional growth in the profession
The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2006-07 Edition published by the U.S. Department of Labor is an excellent resource to help with this.
After that, they need to fully understand the professions educational, certification, and licensing requirements. Once armed with this information about the profession, and confident in their own motivations, an individual is ready to start evaluating educational institutions and the programs that they offer for their chosen career path.
Assessing the School
When assessing schools, the best place to start is by creating a list of schools who offer programs of study for a chosen profession. The list should include schools that are geographically convenient, and/or schools that offer appropriate programs of study through online or distance education delivery methods. Armed with a list of potential schools that may be able to meet their educational needs, the prospective student should then go through a process of assessing the qualifications of the schools.
Accreditation is a process of qualitative review by non-governmental peer reviewing agencies, know as accreditation agencies. Accreditation agencies are then, in turn, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Any educational institution that is accredited by an accreditation agency that is recognized by the USDE can be deemed to meet certain quality standards. In general, prospective students should give preference to schools that are accredited.
Prospective students should ask the school about their accreditation status. They should then verify that the school is in fact accredited as they claim and that the accreditation agency is recognized by the USDE. The List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies maintained by the U.S. Department of Education is an excellent resource to help with this effort.
Evasive, unclear, or incorrect answers about accreditation should be a red flag for any educational institution.
Most states have laws that require that career colleges and technical schools be licensed or certified by an appropriate governmental agency. The agency that is typically involved is the Department of Education or its equivalent. Sometimes, though, other agencies might be involved in licensing, as might be the case for a school for truck drivers.
Individuals should ask any school that they are considering about their state licensing status. They should verify that status with the appropriate state licensing agency or board. An excellent resource to help with this is the Directory of Higher Education Officials put out by the Council of Recognized National Accrediting Agencies (CRNAA).
Lack of appropriate state licensing, or evasive, unclear, or incorrect answers about licensure should be a red flag for any educational institution.
Check with State Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau
It is also a good idea to check for complaints with the Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau both in the student's state and the state where the educational institution does business. There may also be a state consumer protection agency that may be checked as well.
Another excellent source of information about a school are the students and graduates of that school. Prospective students should ask the school for the names of current students and graduates with whom they may speak. Such conversations can provide invaluable information about the school and its programs.
Types of "Assistance" Provided
In addition, prospective students should find out:
- If tutoring services are provided.
- If financial assistance or aid is available and what forms of aid and assistance are available.
- If career planning and placement assistance is available.
Availability of important services and financial assistance can be key to a successful educational endeavor.
Things to Look Out For
There are some fairly clear "red flags" when assessing schools. These include:
- Lack of information - Providing evasive, unclear, or incorrect answers to questions may be an indication that a school is trying to hide something or that they are not very well managed. Schools should be eager to provide prospective students with clear, forthright, and honest information about the school and its programs. Schools unwilling to do this should be eliminated from consideration.
- Job placement and income guarantees - A prospective student should be very wary of any school that provides guarantees about job placement and how much they will make. Any school accredited by the U.S. Department of Education cannot legally make such guarantees. They can, however, provide statistics about placement and salaries earned (Choosing the Right Career Training School, Better Business Bureau).
- Comfort - An intangible, but often a warning indicator, is an individual's degree of comfort with the institution. While they may not be able to articulate clear reasons, a strong degree of discomfort with an institution should be "listened" to. Prospective students most likely will have enough options so that they can eliminate schools that make them uncomfortable for any conscious or subconscious reasons.
Assessing the Program of Study
Once a prospective student has narrowed down to a smaller list of "acceptable" educational institutions, they need to spend some time evaluating the specific program of study that interests them. Questions that they should get answers to include:
- How is the program delivered? Is the program entirely onsite at the educational institution? Is it online? Is it a blended program (mix of onsite and online)?
- Does the program include practical "hands-on" instruction (if applicable)?
- Does the program include a "real-world" internship (sometimes also referred to as an externship)? If there is an internship, is it a paid internship?
- What are the qualifications of the instructors?
- What credential do students receive upon completion of the program? Is is a certificate, diploma, degree, or traditional degree such as an Associate's Degree or Bachelor's Degree?
- Are the course credits and/or degree accepted at other educational institutions? This is especially important for students who expect to carry on further study in the future.
- What does the program cost? Make sure to get all costs - tuition, books, lab fees, and any other fees.
- What is the program's completion rate (how many students who start the program actually complete it)?
- What is the success rate on any licensing or certification exams that the program may be preparing students for?
- Does the program allow for additional free or low-cost study and assistance for students who fail licensing or certification exams?
- What is the job placement percentage for students completing the program of study?
It can also be helpful to attend or audit a few sessions of a course so that the student may gain some first hand knowledge of the environment, teaching methods, and quality of instruction and materials. Check with the school to see if they allow such auditing.
To summarize, to perform a thorough evaluation, a prospective student must:
- Assess themselves
- Assess the profession
- Assess the educational institutions
- Assess the programs of study
By following this process, any student should have a clear picture and be able to make an informed decision about their educational and career future, and understand if a career or technical school plays a part in that future.
- Accreditation: A Detailed Explanation of Why it Matters, UCEADirectory.org
- Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- Career College Association
- Career Colleges and Technical Schools, U.S. Department of Education
- Choosing the Right Career Training School, Better Business Bureau
- Diploma Mills and Accreditation, U.S. Department of Education
- Directory of Higher Education Officials, Council of Recognized National Accrediting Agencies (CRNAA)
- Fact Sheet #6, Important Questions About "Diploma Mills" and "Accreditation Mills", Council for Higher Education Accreditation
- International Handbook of Universities, 19th edition, By International Association of Universities (IAU), Palgrave Macmillan, October 2007
- List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies, U.S. Department of Education
- Overview of diploma mills and a list of unaccredited colleges, Oregon Student Assistance Commission
- The Attorneys General - Information Related to the AGs, National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG)