"Make the call that will change your life and get you on the right track toward a rewarding future."
Sales pitches like that are helping to draw record numbers of students to for-profit schools that offer job training in everything from welding to massage therapy to medical billing. Buoyed by the recession, these money-making career colleges are filling a niche with skill-specific training, flexible schedules and online degrees.
But behind the multibillion-dollar business and promises of better-paying jobs is a minefield for students, critics say. With costs that can exceed $30,000 for a two-year degree, many graduates emerge saddled with debt
, and for some, a diploma that employers and other schools may not even recognize.
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"The students who sign up don't realize many times what they're getting into," said Angie Moreschi, an investigator at the James Hoyer law firm in Tampa, Fla., which is investigating several for-profit schools on behalf of students. "We've had students $100,000 in debt with degrees like fine arts and video game design, and they say they are never going to get jobs that will pay that back."
The burden of much of that debt falls not only on students but the nation's taxpayers. Many students finance these educations with federally backed student loans
and are struggling to pay them back.
Recently released U.S. Department of Education data show 44 percent of students in default on their federal loans after three years had attended for-profit colleges -- almost double the number at public universities.
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Christine Cortez, a Coral Springs, Fla., single mother, plunked down $30,000 to attend the Institute of Allied Medical Professions in Delray Beach, Fla., for a diploma she hoped would lead to a medical job in ultrasound technology. But the school did not have an accredited ultrasound program at the time so Cortez is ineligible to take a certification exam that she said many employers require.
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"I feel like I've wasted all this time and money," said Cortez, who has been unemployed since graduating almost a year ago.
She is one of 14 former students who filed a lawsuit against the school in January for selling them "a bill of goods." Institute director Karen Vidal said the suit is "baseless," and the school is seeking to dismiss it. The ultrasound program is now accredited.
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The debate over the legitimacy and value of non-traditional for-profit schools and colleges is growing as the industry has soared in popularity. The recession has seen enrollment mushroom with students eager to change careers
, go back to school or increase their earning potential.
In Florida, more than 300,000 students attended for-profit colleges last year, an increase of 63 percent over 2004, according to the Commission for Independent Education, a division of Florida's education department that licenses the schools. Students were enrolled in campus or online programs at more than 150 schools, the largest of which were Everest, University of Phoenix, Keiser University and Kaplan University.
Keiser surveys its graduates six months after they get jobs and says that 90 percent are satisfied with their education.
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"There are some great schools and there's some bad schools," said Chancellor Arthur Keiser. "I believe that we have as good a quality education as anybody in the country for what we do."
Several other schools declined the Sun Sentinel's requests for an interview.
For-profit schools do not attract typical college students entering right after high school. Their base: lower-income, older students who may be working or have children.
Peter Waller, CEO of Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which owns Everest, summed up his company's students in a February conference call on earnings: "They are 25- to 27-year-old average age, who frankly have got lost in life, and we are their lifeline to a career."