The horror stories are out there: students who paid thousands of dollars to a training facility only to arrive for class and find that training materials were subpar or the facility had shut down, taking their money with it.

Fraud suits have been filed against some operators, such as Lanop Certification Corp., while other training providers have simply shut down, giving little or no notice. Earlier this year, Network World ran an article revealing just how disturbing certification training school problems can be for students.

In some cases, a training organization’s problems may be well documented, as were Lanop’s. In other cases, closures may catch students by surprise. If Coriolis, once a leading provider of certification preparation books, can go out of business in a season, so too can even well-known certification schools.

What, then, is an IT professional to do? Who can you trust to deliver first-rate IT certification training?

I recommend you trust no one. Instead, before you write a check to a certification training provider, conduct some basic due diligence. Here’s how.

Ask for references
Back in 1998, I enrolled in a 10-month MCSE program at a local university. Before making the commitment and investing thousands of my own dollars, I contacted a network administrator I knew who had graduated from the same program and asked him about his experience. Even though the university has a great reputation, I wanted to be sure the effort would be worth my time and money.

I recommend you do the same. But try to get references on your own, rather than using those the school itself provides. I worked for several years in public relations, certainly long enough to learn that when an organization provides references, it usually does its homework to ensure favorable comments.

Ask around at the office and local IT seminars. Talk to other colleagues. Get online and post a few queries in online certification newsgroups, such as those you can find at CertTutor.Net Live. Sooner or later, you’ll come up with the names of a few students who have attended the training facility you’re considering. Shoot those students an e-mail or a quick call, explain that you’re looking to enroll, and ask whether they’d recommend the facility.

Check with the BBB and state attorney general
The Internet offers wonderful resources that are often overlooked. During a recent remodel, I eliminated a few potential carpet contractors just by viewing their Better Business Bureau (BBB) rap sheets, which were longer than a day on the help desk during an Exchange server failure. You can use the BBB to root out poor training providers just as easily.

Most training facilities I know of are for-profit organizations, so you should be able to view their BBB records online. Just find the BBB that represents your locale and search for the training facility.

I also recommend firing off a quick call to your state attorney general, whose telephone number is only a quick Google search away. Another oft underused resource is your state attorney general, who is usually on top of fraud and consumer complaints. A quick call to check on a training provider’s history could save you months of agony, so it’s well worth your time to check and see what the state attorney general has to say about the facility you’re considering.

Check capitalization
The next check to perform is a little more difficult. You should try learning how well capitalized the training facility is. In other words, does it have any money, or might it be in danger of closing because its creditors wish to be paid?

A couple of options exist. First, if you count any accountants as friends, ask them what they’ve heard or whether they check into things for you. Accountants often have the juiciest gossip that’s floating around town. After all, they see the real numbers and are frequently the first to know of acquisitions, layoffs, bankruptcies, and other scintillating financial actions.

Another option is to check the local business press. Read any financial news you can find on the training facility or its parent company, since local training facilities are often a branch of a regional or national provider. If a training facility is a publicly owned company (such as New Horizons), take a look at its annual report and review its recent 10-Q quarterly filings. Serious financial issues will be readily apparent.

Don’t pay everything up front
For anything longer than a one-week class, it’s inappropriate to pay for an entire training program in advance. Be wary of a training provider that’s demanding that you pay for instruction before most of the training occurs.

While it’s certainly appropriate to pay as you go, it’s not wise to pay more than a few weeks in advance for an IT certification training course or program. It’s possible you could arrive one day to find the facility closed, but at least you’d be out the money for only a few weeks of training rather than having paid for an entire program.

Ask about the facility’s success rate
Just as important as the financial health of the educational facility is the quality of its training. When checking with other students who have taken classes or completed instruction at the facility you’re considering, ask how happy they were with the instructional materials, lab computers, and instructors.

Ask the training facility to provide detailed information on student certification success rates. Also request guarantees in writing. Many institutions offer a free exam retake option within so many months of the original training date. Be sure you obtain all such guarantees in writing.

Eckel’s take
You should select a certification training facility based on several factors. Its location should be convenient. The instructors should be qualified. Past students should have good things to say about the facility and its training materials. There should be some warranty that, should you fail at your attempts to certify, you can take courses again at a free or discounted rate.

But most important, you want to ensure that the facility you select will actually be in business when your training is scheduled to complete. In the case of many Cisco and Microsoft certification programs, from the time you sign up for your course, you might be looking at six months or more until you actually take the course. In the tech world, that can be a lifetime. Be sure that you conduct some due diligence. It may well save you a lot of time and money down the road.