Chart of the Day: For-Profit Vocational Schools Are An Unholy Rip-Off


Max Ehrenfreund points me today to a remarkable new study of vocational school students. We’re all aware in a sort of general way that for-profit vocational schools are basically a rip-off, but check out the chart on the right. On average, counting both grads and dropouts, students at for-profit schools earn less after leaving school than they did before. And even graduates don’t do very well: They earn only about $1,300 more than they did before, compared to $4,500 for community college grads.

The study was done by Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Nicholas Turner, and as usual, there are some caveats. Some of the negative effect may be driven by unreported tip income. The study ended in 2008, which means it might be picking up the first bits of the Great Recession. And it’s hard to infer causality: it’s almost certainly the case that better students enroll in community college programs in the first place.

All that said, however, the results are pretty stunning. Once you take into account the debt load from attending for-profit schools, virtually no one benefits. Even graduates probably never make up for the cost of the program.

With rare exceptions, there are three lessons here. First: Just don’t attend a for-profit vocational school. If you can’t attend a community college, skip the whole thing. Second: At the very least, don’t do it unless you’re absolutely, 100 percent sure you’re going to finish. If you drop out, you’ll most likely end up with a bunch of debt and a lower income than you had going in. Third: Don’t even think about going to a for-profit school to get a certificate in therapeutic services. That’s the biggest killer out there.