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More Protections for Students at Vocational Schools Close at Hand

| August 30, 2012
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Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

California’s private vocational schools will be required to publicly disclose more key information – including accreditation status, job placement rates and graduation rates – under a new bill the Legislature passed this week.

The bill, authored by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

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Block introduced his bill in February in response to a series of storiesby The Bay Citizen that revealed California regulators’ lax oversight of for-profit vocational schools and diploma mills.

The Bay Citizen found that the state agency responsible for oversight, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, had allowed dozens of unaccredited vocational schools to operate for decades without state approval or inspections. The agency also failed to investigate some complaints against schools and didn’t shut down illegal diploma mills – schools that offer degrees for little coursework and that lack accreditation by a recognized government agency. 

The Legislature created the bureau more than two years ago to strengthen protections for students attending private vocational schools. The bureau replaced a regulatory agency that was closed in 2007 because lawmakers deemed it ineffective.

State officials said budget cuts and hiring freezes prevented the current bureau from fully staffing its compliance unit after it was established in January 2010. The bureau is now fully staffed and job candidates are being interviewed for five additional enforcement positions that were recently added to the department.

The new legislation requires vocational schools offering associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to indicate in their course catalogs whether they are accredited. Schools that are not accredited must disclose any known limitations of their degrees, such as whether licensing agencies would not allow students to take licensing exams. It also requires vocational schools to post on their websites their annual reports, student brochures and course catalogues.

Finally, schools will have to post accurate job placement rates and salary information. Under current law, schools are permitted to report the salaries earned in the occupations for which students are being trained. The new law requires schools to disclose the salaries of their own graduates.

While vocational schools seeking state approval are required to submit some of those documents to the bureau, the state does not make all of those records readily available.

Block said the law will improve protections for the 400,000 students attending vocational schools across the state. Some students have paid tuition and fees as high as $40,000 only to realize they don’t have the skills to secure a job in the field for which they were supposedly trained.

“This will let them make a more informed decision as informed consumers and about where they should spend their own money or grant money,” Block said. “I think you will see many more students choosing to go to the good schools. The idea is to motivate the bad schools to do a better job so they can attract more students. If they can’t, they’ll go out of business.”

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the bureau, said the department has no official position on Block’s bill.

Graduates of unaccredited institutions face more limited job prospects. They are barred from many civil service jobs in several states including California, Michigan and Oregon, as well as most jobs requiring professional licenses and teaching certificates.

If the governor signs it, the legislation will go into effect Jan. 1. The bureau will be responsible for enforcing the law.

Student advocates hailed the new legislation.

“We are very pleased,” said Elisabeth Voigt, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a civil rights organization based in San Francisco. “Because many of the for-profit vocational schools disproportionately enroll low-income students, it’s particularly important that students have the information they need to make wise decisions about investing in their future.”

This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.

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