pretty african american college student wearing graduation attire in library
Prospective students can be forgiven for wondering whether they should enroll in an online, for-profit degree program. 

The industry went through a rough patch, enduring criticism for high student loan default rates, low graduation rates and dubious recruitment practices.

Yet despite the bad press, students shouldn’t discount online, for-profit programs. While the programs vary in quality, some provide an education that rivals their nonprofit peers, experts say. And new federal regulations, called the gainful employment rule, will kick in this summer, giving students more protection by weeding out for-profit programs that graduate students with high debt-to-income ratios.

Before students enroll in the programs, experts suggest they ask the below questions to determine whether enrolling is a wise idea.

[Learn three facts about for-profit colleges and student debt.]

1. How much will I be spending? “Make sure you understand the financial commitment you are making,” says David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University’sGraduate School of Education. For-profit schools in particular can be really good at helping students get their financial aid packages taken care of, he says. “The danger is that you allow someone to help you so much that you don’t actually understand what is happening.”

10 Tools That Give You a Tailored Estimate of What You’ll Pay for College

Students should calculate what their student loan payment will be after graduation, he says. And then they should check the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment outlook reports to make sure they will be earning enough to comfortably pay back their loans. “Don’t count on the idea that these schools are going to watch out for you and only enroll students ​who are going to succeed – it’s not realistic,” he says.

The good news is the federal regulations, which kick in the summer, will require schools to release the debt-to-income ratios of their students. Those that don’t meet a certain standard will lose their federal aid.

2. Am I getting the right credential?​ Before students sign up for an online, for-profit program, they should make sure they know what kind of credential and accreditation they need to enter their job or profession, says William G. Tierney, professor of higher education at University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

Not all online, for-profit schools have regional accreditation, which some employers may prefer over national accreditation, says Betty Vandenbosch, provost at the for-profit Kaplan University, which offers online and on-campus programs. Students may also want to look into whether their program needs programmatic accreditation from an organization, she says.

Programmatic accreditation from groups such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business can guarantee a level of quality in the eyes of employers.

Students can determine whether an accrediting agency is legitimate by ensuring it is recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education.

[Discover how to vet a for-profit online program.]

3. What does the school’s job placement record look like for your particular field? If students are investing in online, for-profit schools with an eye toward joining a specific field, they should do as much research as possible into the school’s job placement rate within the industry, says Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University who has studied for-profit schools.

Students should also ask about job placement rates in their specific community, not just nationally, Kaplan’s Vandenbosch says.

When the gainful employment regulations go into effect, schools will be required to release their job placement information. But for now, Lang says, it can be hard for students to get straightforward facts.

If an institution doesn’t provide that job placement information, Vandenbosch says students should ask why.

4. How will employers view my credential? Whether a student’s online, for-profit degree will be respected by employers really varies case by case, experts say. Some employers are more interested in whether someone has a specific skill set, Lang says. But still others may believe there is a stigma​ associated with the online, for-profit status.

According to Deming’s research, for example, applicants with a bachelor’s degree in business from a large, online and for-profit school are about 22 percent less likely to receive a callback from a potential employer than applicants with similar degrees from nonselective public schools.

“This is not the same thing as saying that the degree has no return in the labor market,” he says. The degrees can still give​ students advantages, he says, such as setting them up with internships or helping them earn a license.

[Explore why transfers to for-profit colleges earn less than others.]

Austin Mahoney, who got an online bachelor’s degree from Kaplan and started his online master’s degree in information technology there this month,​ says he’s not at all concerned about how his academic credentials will fare in the job market.

The Mount Pleasant, Texas resident works in Web​ development for a school district but hopes to do similar work for a major company someday. He stands by his education, which he says he chose for the course variety, the cost and the challenging academics.

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