FORT WORTH, Texas - They offer the dream of a good-paying job in a high-demand field, easy admission, flexible hours and help with the thicket of paperwork to obtain federal financial aid.

For students who work full time, prefer hands-on training and want a degree or certification quickly, private, for-profit schools seem like an ideal solution. And some graduates have found career success.

But others may leave saddled with debt and little else. Many graduates find that public and selective private colleges won't accept transfer credits, or that the degrees or certificates won't land them a job. Ultimately, taxpayers foot the bill when students default on their federally insured loans.

It's largely left up to students to determine the quality of the education - and they may find little to help them.

Few if any independent published guides exist. Getting information from state agencies often takes written or e-mailed requests and patience, whether it be information about complaints or job placement rates.

A telling indication of student success after graduation is the loan default rate, but that figure is difficult to obtain. Before the U.S. Department of Education would research the rates, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had to find federal identification numbers for local colleges.

"The students can also do other investigating, such as visiting with employers who have hired graduates of the schools, as well as visiting with the students themselves," said Ann Hatchitt with the Texas Workforce Commission, which oversees many career schools and colleges.

Lacking such know-how, students often rely on the schools' advertisements.

"It's much more direct sales," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. "Many of their targets are people who act on impulse. They see an ad."

Among the career schools are relatively new national chains such as Everest College, local institutions such as Iverson Business School, and long-established national ones, such as DeVry University.

The vast majority operate for profit.

They may offer degrees and certificates in paralegal studies, hotel and restaurant management, construction management, and medical insurance coding and billing, among other areas. Typically, they don't have the leafy campuses seen at nonprofit colleges and state universities. Home is a single building or part of a building that resembles a corporate center.

Most tend to attract low-income, often minority students, experts say.

By offering practical, hands-on training and education in high-demand fields, some have grown fast. At Everest College in Fort Worth, enrollment has more than doubled to 546 students, up from 250 after the first 11 months of operation in 2004. Westwood College says its Fort Worth campus has 445 students, up 31 percent from 339 in 2006.

To get accepted, students often need a high school diploma or GED. College entrance exams, letters of recommendation and a record of extracurricular activities are usually not required, though students sometimes take exams to help with career placement and determine college readiness. Students and former students said they were attracted to the schools by a great sales pitch and extensive advertising on TV and radio and in newspapers.

Cost doesn't seem to discourage students. Tarrant County College, which has many of the same programs, charges about $1,500 a year in tuition and fees, compared with $19,375 to $24,025 for the first year at Westwood and $8,856 to $14,415 for the second. Everest's offerings include eight-to-nine-month diploma programs that officials say prepare students for careers in high-demand fields. Tuition is about $13,000.

Students say they're willing to pay more for the convenience, flexibility and career-focused education.

Westwood student Susan Morgan said the Fort Worth campus was just a five-minute drive from her home when she first enrolled. "An associate's degree in 20 months - you can't beat it," she said.

And Westwood provides free lifetime retraining to any of its alumni, said Rick Skinner, Westwood Texas vice president.

Marsci Osowski of Arlington said she went to DeVry in downtown Fort Worth after a semester at Tarrant County College because of the quicker pace and because the large variety of evening classes fit her daytime work schedule. She said she received a bachelor's degree in accounting from DeVry last February at a cost of about $13,000 a year and is now working toward a master's degree in finance at DeVry's Keller Graduate School of Management.

Everest Campus President Marilyn Long said her staff takes a special interest in its students."If they miss school, we call them and find out what's going on," she said.

But some for-profit colleges have come under fire for what government officials call unethical practices. The U.S. Justice Department announced April 20 that Westwood Colleges in Texas and parent company Alta Colleges of Denver agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit, though the company said it believed it "always acted lawfully and ethically." Texas Westwood officials were accused of falsifying financial aid forms, encouraging students to cheat on placement exams, and lying about job placement rates.

Recruiters were told that if a prospective student asked whether credits would transfer, they were to say yes or that transferability was "up to the receiving school." But the suit states Alta Colleges "failed to identify any school that did accept its credits."

Some alumni said they saw abuses firsthand.

Kris, a 22-year-old who spoke on the condition she not be fully identified, said that when she enrolled, officials said credits would transfer. She spent $38,000 for her associate's degree in graphic design and multimedia. But her credits were not accepted by Tarrant County College when she enrolled. She had to start all over.

"I'm still a little bitter," she said. "It just really felt like they did it for the money."

Vanessa said she was told she would earn $30,000 a year with a medical assisting diploma. Instead the jobs she was offered paid about $17,000. The single mother defaulted on her $25,000 student loan last year. Debt collectors call about every other day.

"Now I'm in debt over $25,000 with no medical assisting job," said Vanessa, who did not want her last name published because she is embarrassed about her situation.

Other colleges are also the target of complaints.

Last year, Dallas attorney Julie Johnson filed suit on behalf of 46 former students against Iverson Business School in Arlington. The claims were similar to some of those against Westwood College. Iverson's attorneys denied the accusations. The two sides are trying to negotiate a settlement, Johnson said.

Everest College graduates Kimberly Newton and Shannon Huddleston call their college experiences a waste of time and money. Huddleston, 27, said she has about $25,000 in student loan debts after getting an associate's degree in medical assisting from the Dallas campus but couldn't get a job in the field because some employers didn't know anything about Everest.

Newton said she has $8,000 in student loan debts after enrolling in the medical billing and coding program at the Fort Worth campus. She said she learned her trade primarily from reading her books and that her first job after graduating paid $10.50 an hour.

"I was making more when I was working at Albertsons," she said.

Everest public relations consultant Emily Buenzow wrote in an e-mail that the school tells students "that acceptance of credits is at the sole discretion of the receiving institution."

Many nonprofit and public colleges refuse to accept credits from schools not accredited by one of the nation's six regional agencies. Proprietary colleges tend to be accredited by national agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but some critics say the accreditation doesn't focus on student outcomes.

The University of North Texas and Tarrant County College will accept credits from DeVry because it is accredited by the regional Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association.

Officials at the more selective private schools, including Rice, Texas Christian and Southern Methodist universities, either said they don't accept proprietary school credits or called the chances remote. Ray Brown, TCU dean of admissions, said he has a general concern about the rigor of courses at proprietary schools. He said so many standards in academia have been watered down.

"I'm just not interested in adding another one to the list," Brown said.

Students at for-profit schools depend heavily on federal loans and grants. About 80 to 85 percent of Everest College's revenue comes from federal sources, Buenzow wrote in an e-mail. "This figure is not surprising, as most of our students are pursuing entry-level skills training programs and thus qualify for more federal aid than a more affluent demographic," she wrote.

More than 95 percent of Westwood students receive federal financial aid, chief marketing officer Russ Natoce wrote in an e-mail.

At DeVry University, 70 percent of undergraduates nationally received federal financial aid, according to DeVry's 2008 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

With taxpayer money at stake, the ability of graduates to find jobs and repay loans is an issue that in years past has caught Congress' attention. The default rate has been improving, but a gap remains.

The rate was 9.7 percent at for-profit schools for the federal Direct Loans and Family Education Loan programs in fiscal 2006, the most recent federal data available. In comparison, rates were 2.5 percent for nonprofit private schools and 4.7 percent for public schools.

Johnson says she understands why proprietary students struggle to repay loans.

"They end up without a job, without a career, in $30,000 in debt and they're working at the checkout in a Wal-Mart," she said. "Their lives haven't changed at all."

Everest's Fort Worth campus had a default rate of 11.9 percent for 2006, down from 16.3 percent in 2004. "It is a fact that students seeking entry-level skills training default at a higher rate than students attending a traditional college or university," Buenzow wrote.

Westwood's Fort Worth campus had a default rate of 17.9 percent during the 2006 fiscal year, up from 12.6 percent in 2004. Westwood officials said the rate lumped the Fort Worth campus in with campuses in Chicago and Atlanta. They also said the default rate was reduced by 20 percent this year.

The data may understate the default problem, critics say. By law schools collect default rates only for two years after students graduate, and students often don't have to pay back their loans until nine months after they leave school. That means colleges have only a 15-month window to have default rates count against them.

"This is what the industry has by way of power in Washington," said Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

It's up to the student to find success, said recent Westwood graduate Florencia Chairez.

Chairez said she opted against TCC because Westwood's program would be quicker. She said she now works as a lead medical assistant at Clinica Mi Doctor in Fort Worth.

"They're not going to say, 'Here, you have a job,' " she said. "We have to go out and get that job."

(c) 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.