A consumer rights coalition argues that programs at for-profit schools in Maryland cost twice as much as public colleges and don’t deliver on their promises. (iStock)

Updated with response from North American Trade School.

Maryland students are making a risky bet when they attend for-profit schools that are saddling them with high levels of debt for what are often worthless degrees, according to a new report from the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

“Students are not getting what they think they’re paying for,” said Marceline White, the coalition’s executive director. “What they’re getting instead of their dream of improving their lives is what many would describe as a nightmare.”

The consumer advocacy group compared costs, student debt and loan defaults at for-profit colleges, private career schools and public colleges in Maryland, using data from the Department of Education and Maryland Higher Education Commission, a state regulator.

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Advocates found that programs offered at for-profit schools cost at least twice as much as public colleges and universities. One for-profit college in Maryland charges $52,737 for a degree in dental hygiene, while an associate’s degree in the same field at the state’s public colleges costs about one-sixth that price. The average income of a dental hygienist in Maryland is $38,740.

To learn whether local for-profit schools are being transparent about cost, coalition staff posed as prospective students and requested information from six of the 146 career-training schools and four of the 11 for-profit colleges in Maryland.

Six of the nine schools refused to answer any questions over the phone, with five requiring in-person meetings. And once staffers agreed to meetings, they said they were treated to aggressive sales pitches with rare mentions of cost. The following week they received 18 calls and 19 emails, 13 of which came from two for-profit colleges. The coalition declined to identify the schools involved in the mystery shopper experiment.

Given the high cost of obtaining a degree or certificate at many for-profit schools, more than two thirds of students in Maryland take out federal loans to attend, compared to 29 percent of students enrolled in the state’s public institutions, the report said.

Students at for-profit schools in Maryland borrow three times more than their peers at public colleges and universities, leaving school with a median $18,083 in loans. Twenty-three percent of students enrolled in for-profit schools for a certificate or degree default on their loans, compared to 15 percent of students at public colleges in Maryland.

Supporters of for-profit colleges take issue with the characterization of the schools in the report, arguing that their graduation rates are often higher than community colleges.

“The report from the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition is built on anecdotal information, misleading data points and an overall failure to understand why new traditional students choose to attend private sector institutions,” said Noah Black, of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit schools.

The coalition did note that half the students pursuing a certificate or associate’s degree from a for-profit school graduate, compared to 16 percent at public colleges in Maryland. Advocates say the difference is because for-profit schools grant certificates that take less than a year to complete, whereas the programs at traditional community colleges take longer. Eighty-six percent of students counted as graduates of for-profit schools in Maryland had finished programs that took less than two years, the report said.

“What’s probably the most striking finding is that after accruing debt, many students who are graduating from for-profit schools are not getting jobs in their fields,” White said. Out of nearly 30,000 students enrolled in Maryland’s private career schools in 2012, just 58 percent found jobs, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education. “It’s not a great record.”

Compared to other states, Maryland sets higher standards for career schools and for-profit colleges within its borders, but most laws cover career schools, not for-profit colleges. For example, the state requires a financial guarantee from private career schools that they will reimburse students the cost of attendance in the event the school closes. Advocates want the state to extend that rule to for-profit colleges.

The coalition also is calling on the state to streamline the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s complaint process. It wants Maryland to institute a 72-hour cooling off period for students considering enrolling at a for-profit school and require those schools to clearly display tuition and fees on their websites. The group also wants regulators to set a 70 percent graduation rate and 15.5 percent one-year loan default rate for for-profit colleges in the state that receive federal grants and loans.

“The recommendations in the report, while noble on face, if applied to community colleges and other institutions that serve new traditional students, would result in those institutions failing to meet the thresholds set,” Black said. “Students served by our sector are seeking programs and offerings that are either not offered at other institutions in Maryland or the program’s timetable is not reasonable for a student balancing family and work demands.”

Lawmakers in Maryland are pushing legislation to tighten up regulations that apply to for-profit colleges and career schools. State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, recently introduced a bill that would address the guarantee fund issue as well as require schools to state upfront whether students would qualify to receive a license upon completion. The bill also would strengthen accreditation of the licensing entity. A hearing on his bill is scheduled for Feb. 24.

“It’s been like the wild west out there, with the way they recruit students and solicit them, particularly poor students,” Pinsky said. “The student is using federal money … doesn’t get a job afterward. They’re left in debt. And some of these schools are playing fast and loose. We need better protections.”

Bernard Reed, 26, said he was frustrated to learn that North American Trade School in Baltimore was not accredited when he graduated from its HVAC training program in 2010. He said the school promised that upon completion of the nine-month program a master technician would verify his hours of training and officials would line up job interviews for him. None of those things happened.

“There were no interviews, no job placement,” Reed said. “After I graduated, I took a trip up to the school to ask if they were still doing the in-house applications. Only thing they gave me was a survey. And that was it.”

About six months after graduation is when he said he found out that the school was not accredited.

Officials at North American Trade School contend that the program was fully accredited at the time of Reed’s attendance, and the school left him four messages to assist with job placement that were never returned.

“We cannot and never have guaranteed a job, we can assist students by offering them a job search class where we prepare them for interviews, help them with a resume and cover letter and assist them in reaching out to companies to see if they have any possible openings,” said Matt Daly of North American Trade School. “We have placed thousands of graduates from our programs, are proud of our accomplishments and know we serve a critical role in helping fill these occupations that our training programs provide students to enter.”

With the $13,000 loan Reed took out to pay for the program coming due, he pounded the pavement looking for work, finding temporary positions as a superintendent at an apartment building, but nothing with much of a future.

He then learned about Project JumpStart, a free pre-apprenticeship program offered by the city of Baltimore to train residents for careers in the construction industry. After completing the 13-week program last year, Reed landed a job doing metal framing and dry wall for a local construction company.

“The company is just so awesome,” he said. “They pay for me to go to school to learn how to read blueprints and made me a foreman. I’m actually advancing now.”

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