Many people are understandably leery of technical training schools, because some of them make unbelievable statements in their advertising. “Get your certification in two days and get a six-figure salary within weeks” is a typical claim. Most of this is just advertising hype, but there was the problem a year or so ago when several large IT training companies went bankrupt, leaving thousands of students in the lurch.

Fortunately, you can use some benchmarks to identify good classroom-based training resources and to avoid the bad ones. I have put together the following checklist to help you review technical training programs. Completing the checklist takes a few hours and you’ll have to invest some time in touring schools. But the time will be well spent if you are planning on investing thousands of dollars in your education or certification training.

Start with online and in-person research
You can get a lot of your research done in a few hours by making some calls and doing online research. After that, you’ll need visit the schools on your short list. Take careful notes of what they tell you and double-check all claims, especially those regarding accreditation or training track record. I am sorry to have to say this, but you won’t be surprised to hear it: You can’t always believe what you’re told.

Once you have visited each school, you are ready to complete this checklist and then make your decision. It’s important not to skip an item or make assumptions. Independent verification and close questioning are crucial parts of the evaluation process.

Checklist questions
#1: Is the school accredited?

Not all high-quality IT schools are accredited, but it’s a good sign if the school has made the effort. To be accredited, schools must be evaluated by outside organizations using criteria such as the quality of the curriculum and the requirements for graduation.

Verify the current status of a particular school by visiting a few Web sites. Colleges and universities are accredited through several organizations, but there is one site you can visit to check out various accreditations for these kinds of schools. Online College Info allows you to search for colleges and universities that been accredited by one of six agencies sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education. There is a separate section on this site for IT degree programs.

Independent training schools often use the services of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. On this site, you can search for accredited IT training providers by program and by geographical region.

One more note: Accreditation can be issued on an institutional or a program basis. Be sure to check the status by going to the appropriate sites to determine whether a particular training provider is using the term appropriately.

#2: Are the training facilities approved by IT vendors?

If you are interested in certification training for a particular vendor, check that vendor’s Web site. Some companies maintain separate areas on their site or even have separate sites for training programs with links from the main corporate site. Look around on the sites for a list or database of training vendors that have been approved by the vendor.

Cisco, for example, works closely with a number of training providers by helping them establish training programs and by monitoring how training is conducted. On the home page for Microsoft training and certification, you can search for Microsoft-approved training vendors, called Certified Technical Education Centers. If you can’t find an accredited training school in your area, you are not out of luck when it comes to classroom training; you just have to be extra careful when evaluating the options that do exist. Look for training providers that employ only instructors who hold the certification you want. Make sure that the school has been around for several years and has a good reputation locally.

#3: Does the school offer hands-on training?

To me, effective IT training can’t be done in a 100 percent lecture format, so I tell people to look for a school that includes plenty of hands-on exercises as part of the training program. I have seen many flyers for computer training programs where all of the instruction is done using notes on an overhead projector. Courses like this provide little more than you could get from reading a good book.

Good follow-up questions
After you’ve determined the answers to these top questions, move on to the secondary items on the checklist:

  • Will the school let you tour the facilities while classes are in session?
  • Will it let you talk to the instructors who would be teaching your classes?
  • Can the school provide references from recent graduates and not just quotes in marketing brochures?

If a training provider dodges you on any of these areas, it’s a sign the company has something to hide.

One big red flag
Finally, don’t sign up with a school that offers you a multiple-course or multiyear program and requires payment for the entire program up front. Reputable schools and independent training vendors don’t need to do that because they are financially stable. Sign up with a training provider that lets you pay as you go.

The few hours you invest in evaluating the training vendors in your area will pay off. Remember to ask difficult questions and verify—as much as you can—the claims they make.