Eric Schmitt at the June 7 hearing.

Last week Eric Schmitt, an Iowa resident and holder of both associate and bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies from Kaplan University, testified as part of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions hearing on “Drowning in Debt:  Financial Outcomes of Students at For-Profit Colleges.”

I’ve blogged about for-profit paralegal programs before, and strongly urge anyone considering any paralegal program to thoroughly vet it before enrolling. Schmitt’s story, as told to the U.S. Senate, is similar to experiences shared by other for-profit paralegal graduates in online forums and in the news.

Schmitt incurred $45k in student debt, and has spent years unsuccessfully trying to find a job in the legal field, even doing a stint as a janitor. He chose a non-traditional educational route because he was supporting a family and needed to work while he earned a college degree. He doesn’t seem to have had unrealistic earnings expectations, testifying he was told paralegals in his area make about $36k a year.

Unfortunately, it has been Eric Schmitt’s personal experience that a legal studies degree from Kaplan University does not carry a great deal of weight with many legal employers:

I cannot say that even once my degree has opened any doors of employment for me. I slowly learned that what most employers thought of Kaplan degrees and graduates. I heard all through my education that the school didn’t care what kind of job you have. There were stories of graduates who never found work, or even if you tried to transfer that most of the colleges would refuse to even accept the credit hours. I’ve since learned that the school counselors have successfully placed statistics that they use to advertise to prospective students.

Kaplan disputes Schmitt’s claims, stating 13 out of the 16 students in his class found work, and that the job placement rate for all programs at the Cedar Falls, Iowa campus is 94 percent. If any of you know whether most graduates of the Iowa paralegal program find legal support staff jobs, I’d love to hear from you. I did a quick search for paralegal and legal assistant jobs in that area, and as of today, it looks as if the pickings are as slim (or slimmer) as they are in many other areas of the country.

I’m going to stick with my paralegal education mantra:  if you’re considering a for-profit paralegal degree, especially online, then you need to do your homework, including reading Eric Schmitt’s hearing transcript in full at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Schmitt.pdf.

Of course, no one is guaranteed a job when they take out student loans to get a degree of any kind, especially in today’s economy, but some of these institutions are guilty of a hard sell to persuade students to incur mountains of debt for paralegal degrees that are not only not ABA-approved, but they are not employer-approved either.

If you’re thinking about a paralegal program, the first place to look is at the Directory of ABA Approved Paralegal Education Programs, http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/paralegals/directory/allprograms.html. If there is not an ABA-approved program within driving distance, check the legal support staff want ads for the area where you plan to work to see what educational and/or voluntary certification requirements most employers want.

Sources:  The Washington Times; Des Moines Register

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