Whether you’re a recent high school graduate, a student contemplating what to do after graduation, or a parent thinking about their child’s future education, you’ve probably heard about the trade schools controversy that has rocked the education field. Much of the clamor has died down now, but that doesn’t mean the danger from predatory trade schools is any less now than it was when the problem was brought to light.

trade schools controversy
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Benefits of trade schools

However, it also doesn’t mean that you should just write all vocational schools off as being nothing but a scam because there are plenty of benefits to attending good trade schools. Often, students who struggled in high school find vocational or trade schools to be a good choice for them because the training is more hands-on than a traditional college or university. In fact, trade school graduates are often ready for employment even before they graduate.

Then there’s the topic of student debt, one of the main triggers of the trade schools controversy.  Trade school graduates usually have very little debt compared to graduates of a four-year college. Although tuition amounts change every year, a study conducted by the Idaho Department of Labor (via KTVB-TV) a few years ago showed that average costs for four-year degrees were about $127,000 in 2013, versus only $33,000 for two years of trade school.

The government began to move toward combating the issues that led to the trade schools controversy, like by keeping schools from forcing students to waive their right to sue when taking out certain loans to pay for their education. However, it’s always better to educate yourself so you can tell the good schools part from those that are questionable at best, especially since the U.S. Department of Education now seems to be dragging its schools on reform. So how does a student or parent tell the difference between good and bad trade schools? There are several things to look for.

Check accreditation

First, it’s important to make sure that the school is accredited. Two reliable places to check a school’s accreditation are the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and the Council for Higher Accreditation’s database.

However, checking accreditation isn’t enough, as any student caught up in the trade schools controversy would tell you. Even DeVry University and some other for-profit trade schools that have taken heat due to the controversy are accredited, so students and parents must dig deeper and avoid being taken in by big promises and flashy advertising.

Ask for completion and job placement rates

For example, Chad Olivia of College Universities recommends that students and/ or parents ask for two very specific metrics from any representatives they meet with from any trade or vocational school. He says that first, it’s important to ask about the school’s completion rate, and second, about its student placement rate.

“I want to make sure they have high numbers which shows me they are a good school not only with graduating students, but getting them jobs after they graduate,” Olivia told ValueWalk in an interview. “I hate seeing these kids graduate with $100,000 in debt and aren’t any better off than the person that didn’t attend college.”

According to Olivia, students and parents should look for an overall completion rate and student placement rate of over 80% when researching schools. The more students who complete the program and the higher the placement rate, the better the school and the more comfortable you should feel about enrolling.

It’s also a good idea to find out what percentage of graduates default on their student loans. This metric can be very telling because it not only tells you that they were placed in jobs but also that they got jobs that pay well enough to enable them to pay back their debt. This metric also reveals whether or not the amount of debt the graduates were saddled with upon graduation was manageable or not. It’s also not a bad idea to ask for references from recent graduates, although not all trade schools may be willing to hand out contact information for former students.

Be skeptical and do your homework

Every school will tout itself as being the best, but no school is perfect. No school has a 100% placement rate, so don’t even waste time talking to someone from a school who claims they can guarantee you a job upon graduation. Be wary of anyone who tells you something that seems too good to be true, and do your own independent research to see if you can verify their claims. For example, are there really as many available jobs they claim there are in your desired career? Do people working in that type of job really make as much money as they claim?

If they claim to have connections with businesses they say they can get you a job with, take the time to check their references by speaking with their contact person at those businesses. A healthy dose of skepticism is in order if they refuse to give you the name of their contact person.

Will you be able to find a job in your chosen career path after graduation?

Finally, spend some time thinking not only about which school you want to attend but about what job you want to have when you graduate. You probably already have some ideas, or you wouldn’t be here trying to learn how not to get scammed like the victims of the trade schools controversy did. But when you think about the job you want, do it in light of whether you will be able to find a position and whether it will pay well enough for you to pay back any debt you might have accumulated while in school.

Sometimes it’s less about a particular trade school and more about the type of job you’re going to be seeking because some careers are growing so it will be easy to find a position, but others are shrinking or simply pay so little that you must be extra careful about how much debt you will have upon graduation. PayScale’s 2017-2018 College Salary Report tells about how much you can expect to earn with which two-year degree so you can quickly narrow down your list of potential vocational programs.