As a former Vocational School Director, I am writing this article to arm you with the information you need to help you make an informed and educated decision about continuing your education before signing any vocational school contract. We’ve all seen the commercials. “Become a Medical Assistant, Dental Assistant or Massage Therapist in just 6 months. How do you know if a vocational school program is legitimate or not? The reality is that many of these vocational schools target single mothers and individuals that qualify for financial aid and want to continue their education. Although financial aid programs may cover much of the tuition, eventually the student will be required to take out a student loan. If the student is unable to secure employment, how will they be able to pay back the loan, or what about the number of vocational schools that dissolve before the students are even able to graduate?
It’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep so you turn on the tv and start flipping through the channels. You run across a commercial that shows a woman who recently graduated from a medical billing program and she’s telling you how successful and happy she is now that she’s armed with an education from ABC vocational school. You quickly write down the number and call the school the next day. First you need to know that the Admissions Counselor’s job is to book as many appointments as he/she can. Just as in any sales job, they are looking to statistically turn leads into sales. Keep this in mind when you call. They will do everything they can to keep from mailing the information to you in order to get you to visit their office. If they won’t mail/e-mail you the information, ask for a web site address where you might view the information. Try to do your homework before you visit the school to ensure that you are not swayed by slick sales presentations.
Now what information should you look for in their literature or on the web site?
Ã¢Â?Â¢ School Accreditation – Be sure that the school is accredited by a program such as the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET), the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. Note that these accreditations are simply safeguards against fraudulent programs and are not a guarantee that this is a good program. If there are no accreditations, I would be very leery of considering the program any further.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Faculty/Staff – What are the qualifications of the faculty? Do they have adequate education and most importantly do they have work experience in the field? Unlike college or university training, it is imperative that vocational schools have teachers who have “field” experience. It would also be helpful for you as that teacher may still have contacts and/or be respected by his/her peers. Think about networking and/or internship opportunities as well as letters of references. Again, remember that the point is to get a job in the profession in which you are training.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Placement – Does the school offer placement services? If so, what kind of services are available. Will they only help me secure my first job or can I come back a few years from now and still get assistance? Most importantly, what is the school’s placement rate? Many schools brag of 90+% placement rates but sometimes this number does not accurately reflect the truth. Simply put, these numbers are padded. What do I mean by this? For accreditation purposes, the school will do whatever they can to make those numbers acceptable. Many will convince students to sign “waiver” forms for reasons such as illness, continuing education, staying on their current job, etc. Ask for a percentage of waivers as well as a percentage of students who are “placed”. If they are cooperative, ask for job titles of students who are included in that number. For example, a paralegal graduate who gets a legal secretary job that has “some paralegal responsibilities” can count as a placement. A medical assistant graduate who is working as a Pharmacy Tech could possibly be counted as a field related placement. I’ve even known Nurse’s Aides jobs to “qualify” as a placement for a Medical Assistant.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ How long has the school been in business? Longevity for any business is important and it’s especially important in vocational education. Beware of new schools that do not have a proven track record. I’d advise letting someone else be the guinea pig. Your education is too important for you to take risks.
Here is some more homework for you to do after you’ve reviewed the literature –
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Professional Associations – Considering paralegal training? Well, you can contact the National Paralegal Association or the National Federation Paralegal Association. Each profession has it’s own professional organization with regional and local chapters. I’ve included links to many of them for your convenience. The best thing to do is to contact the national office and find a representative in your area. Caution – sometimes there can be rivalry between schools, or people can be bias thinking there school to be the best, so be sure to talk to more than one person. If the person you are speaking to has attended a two year college, they may speak against vocational training or your getting into their field in just six months. If you run across this type of attitude, try and get a referral to someone else. The best referral would be a graduate of the program you are considering. If the professional organization says they have no grads that are members, note this to be a red flag. A respectable school should have a few people active in their professional association.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Alumni/Former Students – Always, always talk to a few graduates. Try not to get these referrals from the school as they will always refer you to graduates who are pleased and satisfied. As I stated above, you can get referrals from the local chapter of the professional association or even employers. If you talk to someone on the job, be sure to be respectful of their time because they are at work.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Potential Employers – This is probably the best source for determining whether to go with a particular vocational school. Call and ask to speak with Human Resources or the Office Manager. Be sure to ask them if they consider applicants who are graduates of ABC Vocational School. Ask about their impression of the school and if they have an internship/externship program with the school. Remember, the whole point of attending school is to become employed – right? Negative responses by multiple employers should be a red flag and you should bypass attending that school.
Assuming that you are somewhat pleased with your findings from the research above, now you will want to visit the school. Here is what to look for once on the school’s campus –
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Books/Equipment – Does the equipment look like it’s in good condition? For example, are they using dinosaur equipment or is their technology up to date. Do the books appear to be up to date or does it have a picture of a woman on it with a 70’s “big hair” hair do.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Students – What is your impression of the students? Do they look serious, are they learning in the class or goofing off. Try to listen in the breakroom. Is there murmuring and complaining going on? If you see someone outside when leaving, don’t be afraid to ask them their opinion of the school. Remember, you want to be armed with lots of information to help you make a sure/definite decision. Also, what is your impression of the building and facility? Are the bathrooms clean, is wall paint peeling? All of this information gives you a peek into the character of the school and it’s administration.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ The Bottom Line – Lastly, what is the bottom line. What will it cost me to attend this school and is it worth it? Will I have student loans to pay that will exceed my increase in income? Is attending this school a wise investment?