Don’t get ripped off by a bad private vocational school

An easy-to-read brochure about private trade schools, federal school loans and what to do if your school closes. This publication includes phone numbers for all state licensing agencies for private vocational schools, as well as helpful contacts at the federal level, including the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Don’t get ripped off by a bad private vocational school

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Thinking about going to a private vocational school? Some trade schools are expensive and don't fulfill their promises. Don't get ripped off by a bad private vocational school!

Things to consider before you enroll in a private vocational school

Does the school say it’s licensed and accredited?

Don’t take the school’s word. Doublecheck by calling your state vocational school licensing agency and any accrediting agency the school mentions.

Is the school promising you a job when you graduate?

The law says that private vocational schools can’t falsely state or imply in any way that graduates will have jobs when they graduate, nor can they indicate that a talent hunt or contest will result in employment.

Has the school told you it’s associated with the government or is an authorized training facility for any industry?

It is against the law for private vocational schools to use any business name, logo or insignia that is designed to be deceptive and mislead potential students about affiliations the school might have.

Did you answer an employment agency ad for a job and found you were really calling a school?

This is illegal deceptive advertising. It’s also a good sign that a school is not honest. If this is how you learned about the school, choose another school!

Is a course necessary to get a job?

Check the newspaper to see who is offering the jobs you want. Call the human resources departments of some of the companies and ask if you really need a course.

How are you going to pay for the course?

Private vocational schools are usually very expensive—as high as several thousand dollars. Grants may be available—but most students take out loans to pay for their courses. Before signing any forms, make sure you know whether you are applying for a grant (which you don’t have to pay back) or a loan (which has to be paid back with interest.) Some schools entice students with “grants” that turn out to be loans.

Depending on which type of loan you get, you may have to start repaying the loan as soon as you finish school.

You may have to pay back the loan even if you withdrew from the course, didn’t think you learned anything of value or were lied to or tricked into enrolling.

It can take many years to pay back the loan, depending on the cost of the course and how high the interest rate is.

Unlike many other types of loans or debts, school loans are very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.

If you do not repay the school loan, your credit will be damaged; you will not be able to get other school loans and you will not qualify for Section 8 housing assistance. Also, you may be sued for the unpaid loan, have part of your wages taken or your income tax refund withheld.

Be smart

Do your homework.

Talk to other students, graduates and friends who attended the school — what do they think about the school? Do they have any complaints about the school?

Make sure you understand the contract and other school documents before you sign them. Don’t sign anything unless you understand it!

By law, the school must give you, before you enroll, a full disclosure of the total cost of the program and the school’s refund policy. Take the documents home and read them — if it won’t let you take the papers home, don’t trust the school!

Make sure you read and understand all the materials the school gives you. If you do not speak English well, take the paperwork to a person you trust who can translate for you.

Shop around.

Look at other schools.

Check out the many free or low cost classes offered by public adult education programs or community colleges—public programs may offer the same courses you are thinking of taking at a private school at a much lower cost.

Ask about trainee programs at local companies and community based organizations in your area. You may be able to train for a position for free or while earning a salary.

Where to get information and assistance or file a complaint

U.S. Department of Education

Web site:
The Federal Student Aid Information Center and the Office of the Inspector General are divisions of the Education Department:

Federal Student Aid Information Center
Student aid information counselors can tell you whether a school participates in the federal student aid programs and about possible problems at the institution. The center’s counselors also can explain federal student aid eligibility requirements, explain the process of determining financial need and awarding aid and send you federal student aid publications.

  • Call: (800) 4-FED-AID (433-3243)
  • Write: Federal Student Aid Information Center, P.O. Box 84, Washington, DC 20044

Office of the Inspector General
The Inspector General’s hotline accepts individual complaints about school loans, including fraud and misrepresentation. Your report may be made anonymously or in confidence.

Federal Trade Commission

This federal agency monitors the private vocational school industry’s compliance with federal laws, and can investigate complaints and take corrective action against violators.

  • Call: (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357)

State licensing agencies

To find out if a private vocational school is licensed to do business in your state, call the phone number listed below:

State licensing agencies
  • Alabama: (334) 242-9960
  • Alaska: (907) 269-7970
  • Arizona: (602) 542-5709
  • Arkansas: (501) 683-8000
  • California: (916) 445-3427
  • Colorado: (303) 894-2960
  • Connecticut: (860) 947-1822
  • Delaware: (302) 739-4686
  • DC: (202) 442-4465
  • Florida: (850) 488-9504
  • Georgia: (770) 414-3300
  • Hawaii: (808) 594-0179
  • Idaho: (208) 332-6977
  • Illinois: (312) 814-2220
  • Indiana: (317) 232-1320
  • Iowa: (515) 281-5204
  • Kansas: (785) 296-4917
  • Kentucky: (502) 564-3296
  • Louisiana: (225) 219-4437
  • Maine: (207) 624-6842
  • Maryland: (410) 260-4500
  • Massachusetts: (617) 727-0498
  • Michigan: (517) 373-6774
  • Minnesota: (651) 642-0584
  • Mississippi: (601) 432-6518
  • Missouri: (573) 751-2361
  • Montana: (406) 444-6570
  • Nebraska: (402) 471-4825
  • Nevada: (702) 486-7330
  • New Hampshire: (603) 271-8508
  • New Jersey: (609) 633-0665
  • New Mexico: (505) 841-6611
  • New York: (518) 474-3969
  • New York City: (212) 643-4760
  • North Carolina: (919) 733-7051
  • North Dakota: (701) 328-2678
  • Ohio: (614) 466-2752
  • Oklahoma: (405) 521-2225
  • Oregon: (503) 378-3600
  • Pennsylvania: (717) 783-8228
  • Puerto Rico: (787) 764-0101
  • Rhode Island: (401) 222-6560
  • South Carolina: (803) 737-2281
  • South Dakota: NONE
  • Tennessee: (615) 741-5293
  • Texas: (512) 936-3100
  • Utah: (801) 321-7110
  • Vermont: (802) 828-5139
  • Virginia: (804) 225-2848
  • Washington: (360) 753-5673
  • West Virginia: (304) 558-0265
  • Wisconsin: (608) 266-1996
  • Wyoming: (307) 777-6266

This fact sheet, originally produced by Public Counsel, the public interest law office of the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills Bar associations, was revised by Consumer Action with funds from the San Francisco Foundation’s Bank of America Consumer Education Fund (BACEF).

Published / Reviewed Date

Published: April 01, 2002

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