ollege may be the most popular route to a successful career, but it's hardly the only one. And it isn't necessarily the right route for everyone. Indeed, if you're looking to land your first good job or you're planning to change careers, you may find that vocational school is a better choice.

A vocational training program can give you the specialized skills you'll need to start a new career. Yet it will cost less than a traditional college education and take less time to complete. You can choose from programs in a wide variety of fields, ranging from culinary arts and computers to construction and trucking. Some vocational schools even offer online programs, so you can complete your training without leaving home.

But no matter what type of program interests you, it's essential to look carefully at each school you're considering. In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has brought charges against a number of vocational schools for false advertising. The FTC found, for example, that some schools had misrepresented the job opportunities in their industry or the scope of their training, or had failed to make proper refunds to students who had withdrawn from school.

The time and money you spend to attend vocational school is an investment in your future. But before you make that investment, you must do your homework. Investigate the school thoroughly to determine if it's really the best choice for you. Here are some frequently asked questions to help you get started.

Where can I find information about the different types of vocational training programs available?
You can start by checking out two online resources: CareerExplorer.net, and About.com's Votech Education site. Each site provides information about employment opportunities in a variety of fields and lists schools that offer training in those fields.

Your local public library is another excellent resource. Ask the reference librarian for guides to postsecondary vocational programs. Two publications you may find particularly useful are:

Where can I find information about online vocational training programs?
An online training program enables you to pursue your education no matter where you live. For information about institutions that offer online training, call the Distance Education and Training Council at 202-234-5100 or visit the Council's Web site.

Do I need a high-school diploma to be admitted to vocational school?
Most vocational schools require that you have a high-school diploma or a GED (general equivalency diploma) certificate to be admitted. Some may waive the requirement if you pass an entrance examination. Of course, different schools may have different admission requirements, so be sure to check the requirements for each school you're considering before you apply.

Is financial aid available for vocational school students?
Yes. Each year, the U.S. Education Department provides billions of dollars in grants, loans, and work-study programs to enable millions of students to attend college or other postsecondary schools, including vocational schools. These types of aid are awarded on the basis of financial need. For information about applying, visit the Education Department's Web site or call the Student Financial Aid Center at 800-433-3243.

The federal government isn't the only source of assistance. Many states also have financial aid programs. And many vocational schools offer their own scholarships or other types of aid. To find out about the different types of aid available, speak to the school's financial aid officer and to a student loan officer at Pacific Community Credit Union.

Needless to say, some types of financial aid are preferable to others. Scholarships and grants, for example, are a better way to pay for your education, because you don't have to pay back the money. You need to repay loans, on the other hand, even if you don't complete the program or get a job in your field. Be sure you understand your responsibilities when you accept a student loan or any other type of financial aid.

How do I evaluate a vocational school?
One of the first steps is to check the school's accrediting and licensing. Vocational schools are usually licensed through the state's department of education, and they are accredited by private educational agencies. If a school is accredited, it means the accrediting agency has determined that it meets certain standards intended to ensure the high quality of education. Not all vocational schools are accredited. Ask each school that interests you for the names of its licensing and accrediting organizations.

In addition, obtain a copy of the school's contract and study it carefully. It will explain the school's policies, as well as your rights and responsibilities. Make sure that any promises the school makes to you are in writing.

You also will want to ask the school about its graduation rates. This may give you some idea of whether students—and employers—have been satisfied with the program.

Finally, it's essential to check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) and state consumer affairs department to see if the school has been the subject of any complaints. You can find out how to contact your local BBB office by visiting the BBB's Web site.

Will the school help me get a job?
Most vocational schools offer some kind of job placement. Even if a school says it will help you get a job after you graduate, find out specifically what the school will and will not do to help. For example, will it set up interviews with potential employers? Will it help you put together your résumé and sharpen your interview skills? Get the details. Also, find out what percentage of its graduates are placed in jobs.

In addition, you may want to contact companies in your field and ask if they hire graduates of a school you are considering.

What happens if I don't like the school and decide to leave before I graduate? Can I get a refund?
No matter how carefully you evaluate a school, you may discover that it's not for you once you start attending classes. If you decide to withdraw, you probably will be entitled to a refund—but be aware that it likely will be a partial refund. The school must explain its cancellation and refund policies in writing. Be sure to get this information and study it carefully before you enroll.

What other types of vocational training programs should I look into?
Vocational school isn't the only source of vocational training. Community colleges, for example, also offer vocational training programs, and the tuition may be lower than at a private vocational school.

And, many businesses offer apprenticeships or on-the-job training. So explore all of your options and find out about all the programs available in your field. That's the only way you can be sure that the program you choose is the right one for you.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.