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How to tell a for-profit college is a scam

High upfront fees, job guarantees and more red flags to watch out for.

You may have heard horror stories of for-profit schools scamming students. Not all for-profit schools are bad — but there are many that don’t provide the quality education or employment opportunities they claim to. Knowing what to look out for can help you avoid falling prey to deceitful tactics.

The school has no accreditation

One of the biggest red flags to watch out for is a school that’s not accredited. Not only is this a sign the school isn’t legit, it can make any credits you earn or degree you receive relatively useless.

Credits obtained from an unaccredited school can’t be transferred to other schools, and employers may not accept your diploma. Any reputable college will be open and honest about their accreditation, so make sure to ask before enrolling.

You’re required to pay a large sum up front

It’s not uncommon for schools to charge fees or ask for your first tuition payment before classes even begin. But if your college is asking you to pay an unusually large lump sum up front, it could be a scam. Especially if you’re being charged a flat fee for the full degree.

If that happens, you’re likely dealing with a diploma mill. Again, this will leave you with a worthless degree and high debt load — all for nothing. Always ask for a breakdown of tuition and fees before handing over your bank account details to make sure you’re being charged per class or credit hour.

The college’s website doesn’t end in .edu

Check the school’s website you’re planning on attending and make sure it ends in .edu. This type of URL is considered top level and is only awarded to institutionally accredited post-secondary schools in the US. If a school uses a .com URL, the college most likely isn’t accredited.

You’re promised a degree in months — or even weeks

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. No legitimate college will offer a degree in months — let alone weeks. This is especially true for associate or bachelor’s degrees.

The only instances where you might be able to complete a program that quickly is if the school is offering a certification program or boot camp. Even then, look out for other red flags like the school not being accredited.

You’re promised a “dream job” after graduation

If any school you’re considering promises a job after graduation, be suspicious. Even more so if they guarantee a dream job that doesn’t seem to align with the degree you’re receiving. And even reputable colleges won’t promise employment once you graduate — the most they’ll do is disclose their previous graduate employment rates.

Getting a degree won’t always equate to getting the job you want, and any school that tries to guarantee it will is probably a scam.

The college doesn’t provide student services

It should be a priority for all schools to see their students succeed. One way colleges invest in that success is by offering student services, such as a library, writing center, financial aid office, tutoring and accommodations for students with a disability. Even if your classes are fully online, you should have a way to access these services.

If the for-profit school you’re considering doesn’t offer most of these, then proceed with caution. This could mean the school is more concerned with taking your money than seeing you succeed, which is the perfect recipe for a scam.

Other colleges won’t accept credits from that school

It’s not uncommon to have to transfer credits from one school to another. If you’re attending a college and find out your credits won’t transfer to other schools, this could mean you’ve fallen victim to a scam.

This is a tricky one, though. The hard part is most schools — even reputable ones — won’t guarantee your credits will transfer to a competing school. This is because transferability is determined by the receiving institution. So even if the courses you’re taking at one school are similar to the courses at the school you’re transferring to, it’s up to the new school to approve those transfer credits.

A good rule of thumb is to look for regionally accredited schools — not nationally accredited ones. Regional accreditation is offered to most public and nonprofit schools, while national accreditation is typically awarded to for-profit career and trade schools.

Regional accreditation is widely accepted and credits are transferable to most schools. National accreditation is less common and credits will usually only be accepted by other nationally accredited schools.

For-profit vs. nonprofit colleges: How they compare

Bottom line

Attending college is a huge investment of time and money. Don’t let an illegitimate school scam you out of those precious assets.

Frequently asked questions

What for-profit schools are scams?

There are for-profit schools that are legit. They typically offer programs that nonprofit, public schools don’t, like automotive mechanics.

What should I do if I think I’m being scammed?

If you haven’t already, ask the school for documentation regarding their accreditation, graduation rates, graduate employment rates and cost. If you still don’t feel comfortable or they refuse to give you the information, walk away.

If you’re currently attending the school or have already graduated, try to gather as much evidence you can regarding the scam. You’ll have to prove how you were scammed. If you can do this, you could be eligible for borrower defense to repayment. This could help you get any federal student loans taken out with that school forgiven.

Who’s the main group that for-profit schools target for scams?

Unfortunately, illegitimate schools target already vulnerable groups — typically students who are low income, minorities, women or even veterans. Students in these groups are often looking for nontraditional college options and may not be familiar with major red flags that prove a school isn’t legitimate. Nonreputable schools know this and use it to their advantage.

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