An aspiring artist, Mike DiGiacomo of Randolph, Massachusetts, had just gotten out of the Army when he heard about a for-profit college offering a degree in animation. The “hard-sell” recruiters he talked with, he recalls, assured him the school could land him a paid internship and contacts with video game producers.

But those didn’t materialize, and DiGiacomo later learned that the school referred most graduates to minimum wage retail and service jobs. He quit the program with more than $85,000 in student loan debts. “It ruined my financial future,” he says. His friends who finished their degree, he adds, were no better off, unable to find a job in their field and saddled with more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

Most graduates of for-profit colleges earn less than high school dropouts and owe tens of thousands in student loan debt, according to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. State and federal agencies are investigating and sometimes suing for-profit colleges for fraud as well as predatory lending and recruiting practices .

In addition, one federal report that examined 30 companies running for-profit colleges found they spent a billion dollars more on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions staffing than they did on student instruction.

Related: How to Choose a College So You Don’t Waste Money on Tuition

Although some for-profit schools have successfully trained students for jobs in healthcare, teaching and other high-demand fields, experts say students should do their homework before applying.

“A lot of people go to for-profit colleges, or any college, and they don’t know why,” said Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor, an El Cajon, California-based personal finance website for millennials. “The concern is that it costs a lot of money. If you are going to college just because you don’t know what to do after high school, that’s an expensive way to find yourself.”

Before enrolling in a for-profit college, take these steps to protect yourself.

Consider a non-profit alternative

Students may not even know if a school they’re applying to is a for-profit college, according to Maggie Thompson, campaign manager of the Washington-based coalition Higher Ed, Not Debt, which focuses on the student debt crisis. Check the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website to find out.

Related: Education Tax Breaks Parents of College Students Should Know About

If paying for college is an issue, check out your local community college, which is often far less expensive. In a recent report on for-profit colleges, San Francisco-based market research group Blueshift Research quoted a program director for one for-profit college as saying, “The kids out of high school are terrified of debt …and are going back to community colleges to get a better deal.” If you are applying for an online degree at a for-profit school, be aware that some non-profit online degree programs, such as those offered by the Western Governors University, are only half as expensive as those from for-profit colleges.

Ignore aggressive recruiters

Does the school have flashy ads and aggressive recruiters trying to get you to sign up at first contact? Don’t be pressured into enrolling. Many former recruiters for for-profit colleges have testified to state investigators that they were pressured to sign up students whether or not the school was a good fit for them.

Track your financial aid loans

Don’t let anyone else sign loan papers for you or pressure you into signing quickly (some recruiters have reportedly signed loan papers for students "to make things easier" for them). Read and make copies of all your loan documents. If you decide to drop out after enrolling, get a written statement from the school acknowledging you are no longer a student. Some for-profit recruiters have told investigators that “ghosting” was common — that is, keeping a drop-out “enrolled” so the school could bill the federal government for Pell grants, which the student would then have to pay back, according to the Miami Herald.

Check out the school’s training programs

The school’s equipment for hands-on job training may be out of date or non-existent, according to Thompson. Use Google and social media to see what current and former students are saying about classes and equipment. In one case, students training to become auto mechanics in one for-profit college trained on software rather than actual cars, said Thompson.

Crunch the numbers

Will the financial investment in a certificate or degree provide a financial return? Check out College Scorecard: In one instance, the average salary after a $100,000 four-year degree from one for-profit college was $38,000 a year. The College Investor’s Farrington suggests prospective students use websites such as to see what the job they are seeking pays, then use the calculators such as the one at to see whether such a job would pay enough to service their debt from student loans.

Get stats on job placement

In general, don’t rely on recruiters to tell you what you need to know, says Thompson. Look online to see whether the college is under investigation for exaggerating how many students it has helped placed in good-paying jobs, for instance. Request statistics on job placement from the college and talk with alumni and potential employers about whether a certificate or degree from the school will help you get hired.

Related: College Students: Ignore Predatory Credit Card Offers and Do This Instead

Daniel S. Levine is an award-winning journalist who heads the Levine Media Group and hosts The Bio Report and RARECast podcasts. He was an editor of The Burrill Report and worked for the Oakland Tribune, Adweek, the San Francisco Business Times and other publications.