A high school diploma no longer carries the promise of a job, and students who decide not to go on to college face a bewildering array of trade and vocational schools offering training in everything from massage to real estate sales to truck driving.
A generation ago, high school graduates could often slide into well-paying jobs fresh out of school.
But lucrative low-skill, assembly-line jobs have all but disappeared in today's high-tech world. Today's secretary needs to know how to use a computer as well as take shorthand. And high school vocational training programs that once prepared students for careers after graduation are on the wane.
Daytime television commercials tout the glamorous careers trade schools can deliver, while recruiters at the for-profit schools often use high-pressure tactics to sign up new students--obligating them to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees.
Vocational courses may last anywhere from a few months to several years. Ultimately, it may take longer and cost more to receive training from a trade school than it would to earn a college degree.
So how can prospective students decide among competing schools and protect themselves from unscrupulous operators or substandard programs?
With one of the nation's largest contingents of vocational schools--more than 3,000 schools enroll upwards of a half-million students--California has been plagued with scandals involving schools that bilked unwary students.
To curb those abuses, a state agency was created last year to oversee vocational schools and enforce stringent new regulations aimed at ensuring the financial solvency and academic credibility of the schools.
"The new law has made it a lot easier" for students to evaluate a school's credentials, said Kay Miller, head of vocational school licensing for the new Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.
The council licenses all trade schools, verifying that they are financially stable and have certified teachers and appropriate curriculum and equipment, much tougher standards than had applied before.
But beyond those basics, there are plenty of variables that make some schools better than others, and prospective students have to do their own homework to find the right program.
For many students, the first step is deciding what kind of career they want to pursue, and Miller said that decision ought to be made before a student sets foot inside a trade school door.
"Generally, a student right out of high school doesn't head directly for one of these schools," she said. Only about one-quarter of trade school students are recent high school graduates and they are typically concentrated in programs training medical and dental technicians, computer operators and secretaries.
Miller recommends that high school students considering trade school first visit their local community college and take a few courses in their prospective field.
"Many junior colleges offer vocational counseling, where kids can go in and take some tests, sign up for a course and it won't cost much," she said. "After all, if you're going to sign a loan application (to pay for trade school) obligating you to pay back $9,000 or $10,000, you ought to be sure that's what you want to do."
Testing the waters at a junior college can help students determine what kinds of jobs they'll like and become familiar with the job requirements and course work--factors that will also help them assess the quality of vocational school programs.
Once a student has settled on a career, he or she should contact employers in that field to see which trade schools they recommend, then try to talk with current and former students of those schools about the training they received.
Miller says students should be armed with that information before approaching a school, then be wary of recruiters' sales pitches, since many are paid according to the number of students they sign up.
"Don't go into these schools unsure of what you want," she advised. "It's like buying a car . . . the school will try to sell you on their program."
Miller and other experts say students should never enroll on their first visit to a school; they should take the catalogue and contract home and do background checks before committing to a program.
In selecting a good vocational school, experts say prospective students should also:
* Make sure the school's state license is current. It must be renewed each year and programs are subject to reevaluation every three years.
* Ask the school about its placement rate--the number of graduates who find employment as a result of their training--and find out how much money graduates earn.
* Tour and examine the school's classrooms, equipment and textbooks.
* Get information on financial aid programs and the school's refund policies if a student does not complete the program.
* Make sure entrance exams seem designed to measure aptitude in the subjects taught. Many schools are criticized for enrolling students who clearly cannot do the work. A school that does not seem concerned with student aptitude may not offer a serious and challenging program.