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#342 Consumer Rights: Vocational schools

mp3 #342 Vocational Schools: Your Rights as a Student (mp3 file)

An administrative law attorney who specializes in Student Rights can help with a variety of problems. Some examples might include tuition disputes, special accomodations, breach of contracts, GPA appeals and suspension or expulsion appeals. Continue below to be referred to an experienced and insured student rights attorney.

About 1800 private vocational schools in California teach a range of subjects from massage and bartending to data processing and business courses. These schools have certain advantages such as flexible admission standards and short courses - but they can be expensive. For instance, a six-month business course might cost you $1,500.

Public community colleges and adult education programs may offer similar courses at virtually no cost .to you. However, these courses can take twice as long as at a private school, and they do cost money in terms of the taxpayer's dollars -- if not directly from your pocketbook.

So you should first carefully consider whether a vocational school is necessary. Some companies offer their own training programs -- at their expense rather than yours -- and you should find out about them. If you decide to go to a vocational school, be sure to check the following to make sure the school you choose will actually enhance your job prospects.

Every private school in California must be approved or accredited. Schools are approved in a variety of ways by the California department of education, private postsecondary education division (known as the PPED). You can phone or write PPED for an annual catalogue which lists all approved or accredited private postsecondary institutions, courses offered, and whether the schools are approved for veterans. Unfortunately, in the past, approval did not always necessarily mean that the school and its records had been thoroughly investigated, and once a school had such approval, it was rarely revoked. The schools are now under closer scrutiny.

Some schools are also "approved for veterans." this means that service people, veterans and other eligible persons can take the courses and receive GI benefits. In these cases, the PPED not the veterans administration -- does the actual checking. Schools are also "accredited" by over 60 national accreditation associations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Accredited schools supply consumer information such as placement statistics, and courses offered to prospective enrollees. In addition, to receive financial aid, you must attend an accredited school.

Nevertheless, under any circumstances, don't be lulled into thinking you will be assured of receiving quality education just because the school you are looking at is "approved" or "accredited." You still need to ask some important questions.

It is important that you actually can get a job once you have finished the public or private vocational school course. Often employers are not impressed with diplomas from these schools. Some vocational schools also offer training that employers themselves prefer to provide new employees. Or the school may not tell you that you need more than just a diploma to get a job -- for instance, you may have to take a civil service exam or join a union. So, make sure that the school training will qualify you for the job you want without further training.

To help answer these questions, talk to employers themselves. Look in the yellow pages of the phone book under the subject in which you plan to get training and contact at least three companies. Ask the following questions:

1. Would they hire graduates of the school?

2. How many have they actually hired in the past year?

3. Were the graduates hired because of their school training?

4. Did the training make any difference in starting salary?

If they can't answer these specific questions, get their general impressions.

In addition, find out how many jobs are actually available in the field. You can call your local Employment Development Department (look under "California, state of" in the phone book) To get this information in your area. You can also consult the U.S. labor department's occupation outlook handbook, which is published every two years. Remember that in some fields, vocational schools may be turning out more graduates in one skill than there are jobs available throughout the entire country.

When you look for a public' or private vocational school, you may find that you are receiving the "hard sell." Don’t be persuaded by this strategy -- instead persuaded by this strategy -- instead come back with your own "hard questions". In times of a tight job market, be wary of any school which promises a rosy future. You should also sit in on classes and look at the facilities. Find out how long the private school has been in business. Also get the names of graduates from the past few months and ask them what they thought of the program. If the school won't give you the name of its graduates, look for one that will. In addition, when looking at public or private vocational schools, you should consider the following:

1. If the school boasts of its terrific placement rate or service, or connections with the industry, find out how many students are actually getting jobs. Ask to see facts and figures. Schools must be able to back up their claims about employment and placement success.

2. Find out what the school's drop-out rate is. If it seems high, the classes could be worthless. Find out the private school's refund policy. Schools are required to have an equitable refund policy for the unused portion of tuition fees and other charges if you fail to start or finish the course. But you can still lose money. For example, if you begin a course and find that you don't want to finish, you will forfeit the fees and costs during your enrollment at the school.

3. If the figures show a good placement rate, ask whether the rate refers to graduates or total enrollees. A school may have had 100 students originally, ten of whom finished the course and eight of whom got jobs. The school could present this information as an 80% placement rate, but what about the 92 students who began the course and never got jobs?

4. Check what salaries students are getting if they do get jobs - and if these jobs are actually in the field for which they were trained. Be careful, however, that the job titles used actually reflect the type of work performed. Some job titles sound much more impressive that the work really is.

5. If you want job counseling, see if you can find individuals working in the field in which you are interested who will talk to you. In addition, beware of any school representative who tells you that you are particularly suited for the course or that you scored outstandingly well on an aptitude test. Many private school "counselors" are actually salespeople who work on commission and want to sign up as many students as possible. No matter how glib these salespeople are, don't be fooled. They may even accept students who, because of poor math ability or a language barrier, have very little chance of actually getting a job in the field. All salespersons representing a private vocational school at any location away from the school should have a permit issued by the PPED which you can request to see.

6. Check the instructors' credentials and qualifications to teach a particular occupational course.

7. Don't sign up at a school where the salesperson wants you to enroll right away in order to get into the school. If the salesperson doesn't give you a chance to check out the school's reputation and facilities, look elsewhere.

8. Find out all costs. Sometimes a school will quote a tuition price and not mention extra charges.

9. Every private school is required to have a cooling-off policy if you sign a contract away from the school's premises and begin paying tuition fees before seeing the school. After you sign a contract and if you visit the campus within six days before the start of classes, you will have a three day cooling-off period to void the contract with a total refund of the amount paid. For instance, if you visit the campus on the day before classes begin, you will have three days after your visit to void the contract. If you don't visit the school, you will have a six day cooling-off period before the start of classes. Veterans and servicemen taking correspondence courses must wait at least 10 days from the date the contract was signed and then notify the V.A. of their intention to continue the course. If they notify the school that they don't want to take the course, the school, by law, must refund the total amount paid in advance.

10. Find out if the credits are transferable, if you think you may be attending another school or college in the future.

11. You should realize that "self-improvement" schools (schools such as speed reading courses which don't lead to a vocational objective) are not regulated by any agency.

12. Private schools must have catalogues and brochures available if you request them. The catalogues and brochures contain information on courses offered, the faculty, the tuition fees and refund policy.

Be careful with anything you sign. Even if it's called an enrollment agreement and looks like an application form', it could well be a contract. Be sure to find out the consequences of dropping out of school. If you have a federally insured student loan and drop out without notifying the school in writing, you may be liable for the full amount of the loan. Problems with contracts are very common, and you should understand exactly what agreements you are making.

A written contract must tell you on the first page that if you are not satisfied with the private school, you should direct your questions or problems or to the superintendent of public instruction, state department of education.

Some combined correspondence/residence courses may require that you pay everything during the correspondence portion. If you are asked to do this, make sure you receive a clear description of school facilities and living conditions.

If you have a complaint against a private vocational school which the school will not resolve, or you are a veteran in a program at a public community college, you can contact the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, or the superintendent of public instruction. The department can mediate complaints and take action which will affect the school's approval. Its office is in Sacramento at 1625 North Market Blvd., Suite S202, Sacramento, CA 95834. Their telephone number is area code 916, 574-7720. They are also online at

2. You can also contact the federal trade commission (FTC) online at If the FTC receives complaints about a particular school, it can investigate and possibly bring an action against a school. The FTC also can draw upon these complaints to issue new regulations.

3. If the school is accredited, you can contact the accrediting association. While this probably won't get your money back, it will make your complaint more public.

4. If you have a complaint about a public vocational course, your community college catalogue should tell you what to do if you have a grievance. If the school 'won't resolve your problem, contact your local community college board or: Chancellor's office, California community colleges, online at or at 1102 Q Street, Sacramento, California 95814. Their telephone number is area code 916, 445-8752.

5. You can also take your case to court. To win, however, you must prove that (1) you were fooled or deceived by a salesperson or advertisement because the school didn't live up to the terms of the contract; and (2) you lost something because of being fooled, such as your time or money.



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