Trade School Shams

September 16, 1990

The burgeoning student-loan defaults dragging down the Higher Education Assistance Foundation are bringing needed attention to questions of quality in trade-school education. U.S. Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, noting recently that more than 30 percent of all defaulted loans went to borrowers enrolled at fewer than 1 percent of the nation's 10,000 post-secondary schools, targeted 89 schools with the worst default rates, calling for closer scrutiny of their operations. Twenty-eight closed down.

Such scrutiny is long overdue. Studies of post-high-school vocational education have illuminated two primary reasons for defaults. Many of the ex-students don't have jobs that enable them to repay the loans, but many others are simply so disappointed with the instruction received that they refuse to pay for it.

Trade school operators often cite the excellent proprietary academies and technical and business institutes around the country. They note with pride their accreditation by agencies with prestigious names: the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, the Association of Independent Colleges and Schools, the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools. But such agencies have also come under fire.

"It is reasonable to expect that the level of student loan defaults at a school is related to the quality of its program," Mr. Cavazos said. "I am convinced that any accrediting agency that takes its role seriously must focus on educational effectiveness and must be concerned that institutions with high default rates are held accountable."

The practice of drawing in students from underprivileged communities with advertising, cashing in on their federal financial aid benefits, then washing them out when they prove unable to master the complex skills they hoped to learn is an old one, used by unscrupulous operators everywhere. So is the practice of simply failing to provide meaningful instruction in desired job skills.

But never before have such practices hurt so badly. Today's under-employed youths may be tomorrow's critical labor pool, with so many people reaching retirement age and with so few qualified entrants available. Bringing these under-schooled young adults' skills into line with their aspirations will not be easy, for them or the employers and institutions reaching out to them. It is clear, however, that killing their dreams with shams and saddling them and the nation with outsized debts can only make the job harder.

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