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“We believe accreditation is an important test of the academic quality of the program,” said Steve Gunderson, president and chief executive of Career Education Colleges & Universities, a trade group representing for-profit colleges.

Even if an unaccredited program is reputable, he said, any credit you earn can’t be transferred to a two- or four-year institution as a building block to a higher degree.

Note that in some cases, particularly in the health care field, individual programs of study — rather than the overall institution — must have specific industry accreditations as well, said Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career & Technical Education, a trade group that works primarily with nonprofit schools.

Check if the program has qualified instructors, Ms. Hyslop advised, and whether it has relationships with employers, such as internships, which can help with job placement. The association offers a full list of criteria for quality programs.

Does the school offer federal student aid? No loan is risk free, but federal loans generally offer the cheapest rates and have borrower protections that other types of debt lack, said Quinn Martin, a lawyer with the consumer protection division at the Federal Trade Commission.

It can be difficult to independently verify a school’s claims about the rate of employment among its graduates. Try to talk to former students, and to employers who have hired them, about their experience, Mr. Martin said.

“My general advice is: Don’t take the school’s word for it,” he said.

You can also check with the state licensing office or attorney general’s office, to see if excessive complaints have been made about a school or program. The F.T.C. website offers additional advice.

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