ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) - Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, in an op-ed over the weekend, said those thinking about enrolling in a for-profit college should do their homework and make sure they get the best value for their money.

For-profit colleges, like University of Phoenix, operate like businesses, receiving fees from each student they enroll.

They often advertise on the Internet, television and radio, in newspapers and through the mail.

Advertisements are often aimed at students without much money or those who are the first in their family to attend college. Often, these ads will share success stories and tell how much a student will earn after graduating.

However, as Swanson noted in her Echo Press guest column on Sunday, because investors of for-profit colleges make money when students enroll, "their recruiters sometimes relentlessly pursue students who have expressed an interest in receiving more information."

It is these tactics that have some state attorneys general, including Swanson, concerned.

"In some cases, such colleges have used deceptive sales practices to entice students to enroll in expensive programs that are available at a state college or university at a fraction of the cost," she wrote.

"In other cases, students have paid thousands of dollars to enroll in such programs, only to obtain a worthless degree."

To avoid any problems, Swanson says prospective students need to question the college's marketing pitches, ask for its graduation rates and job placement rates, and find out what their future earning potential will be.

Another important question, the attorney general says, is whether the college's accreditation means anything.

"For-profit colleges can usually claim some type of 'accreditation,' but some degree or certificate programs may cost thousands of dollars and not be the type of 'accreditation' that meets the standards for the profession in which you plan to work," she wrote.

Swanson says her office has heard from students who have spent thousands to obtain a certificate offered by a for-profit program, only to find out that employers will not hire people based on the certificate.

"Find out whether employers in the area hire students with the type of degree offered by the for-profit college, perhaps by speaking with employers or local community or technical colleges or public universities in the area," Swanson wrote.

The attorney general also says prospective students need to find out if credits earned at a for-profit college will transfer and aks for details on its withdrawal periods.

Most importantly, she says, compare costs.

"In some cases, you may be able to get the same or better degree elsewhere, such as at a community or technical college or state university, for a fraction of the cost," the attorney general wrote.

"The recruiters at for-profit colleges may pressure you to enroll, but take time to comparison shop. Make sure the cost quoted by the for-profit college aligns with the length of time you plan to attend courses; for example, if you plan to attend school 12 months out of the year, make sure the college quotes you the cost for attending 12 months of classes. Also, stop by or call your local public college to find out what it charges for the same or similar program."

And, of course, Swanson says prospective students need to take into consideration that loans must be paid back.

"As noted above, some for-profit colleges get almost all of their revenue from federal student loans and aid programs. Some recruiters may minimize the expense of attending a for-profit college by telling you that you can pay for college with federal student loans," she wrote.

"You should review all of the expenses you will have when attending college, including your cost of living and room and board. You should review whether these loans and other funding sources will cover all your expenses and, if not, think through how you will make up the difference. You should verify the amount and type of financial aid you qualify for and make sure you are comfortable with the amount of loans you will be responsible to pay back."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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