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State Regulators Let Vocational Schools Operate without Approvals

Lack of proper oversight leaves students with few protections

Job prospects for thousands of California students are being threatened by the failure of state regulators to crack down on unapproved private vocational schools. Despite vowing to strengthen protections for Californians attending vocational nursing, technical and trade schools, and other private colleges, the regulators have allowed more than 130 schools to operate for months without state approval, according to state records.

Private vocational schools in California require the approval of the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, established two years ago to provide stricter oversight of schools that serve 400,000 students across the state. Yet up to 10 percent of the state’s approved private postsecondary schools have been allowed to operate with expired approvals, a Bay Citizen investigation found. Postsecondary Bureau officials said that they had not alerted students who were attending unapproved institutions. In fact, some schools with expired approvals are still listed as approved on the state’s Web site.

Students attending unapproved schools have virtually no consumer protections. Without state oversight, students cannot be sure that their schools are making accurate claims about job placement rates or other fundamental measures of competence. Students may be barred from transferring credits to other schools. These vocational schools are the springboard for a broad spectrum of workers, from dental assistants and security guards to paramedics, putting consumers at risk if the graduates are not trained properly.

But lax state oversight also means that even state-approved schools can be risky investments for students. Oikos University of Oakland, where seven people were shot to death earlier this week by a former student, was approved by the Postsecondary Bureau even though state records show that only 16 of its 48 graduates in 2010 found jobs after graduation. Only 41 percent of Oikos’s vocational nursing graduates passed the national licensing exam in 2011, according to Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Services, which oversees the Postsecondary Bureau. That is among the state’s lowest rates.

Students at some of the schools where approvals had expired were surprised.

“I thought this was a ticket to a better job,” said Craig Furman, 41, a street sweeper who recently enrolled in the vocational nursing program at Prime Career College in Vallejo, an 18-month program that charges about $22,000 for tuition. “That’s a lot of money.” He added that he had thought the college was approved by the state.

The Postsecondary Bureau’s Web site lists Prime Career College as approved, even though its internal records show that the school’s state approval expired a year ago.

State officials said they were worried about students at unapproved institutions but said that limited staffing prevented them from cracking down. “If a school is not approved to operate, they are operating illegally,” Heimerich said. But, he said, “We don’t have the staff to go to every school and check that the door is locked.”

Yet in just a few hours, a Bay Citizen reporter confirmed by telephone that at least 93 of the schools whose approvals have expired are still operating.

Schools caught operating without state approval face fines of $50,000 for each main campus they run, but since October 2010 the state has fined only two schools that were caught operating without approvals. The fines have not been paid, and one is on hold while the school appeals.

The Bay Citizen filed a public records request on Feb. 21 asking the Postsecondary Bureau to identify institutions operating without approval. The bureau then warned 137 schools “as a courtesy” that their approvals had expired, in some cases nearly two years ago. State officials, however, said that they had no plans to follow up to identify which schools continue to operate illegally.

“It is not a general enforcement practice to track that down,” said Joanne Wenzel, the Postsecondary Bureau’s deputy chief, adding that if her office received complaints from the public, “then we would follow up on those as an enforcement action.”

Spotty oversight of California’s vocational schools was thrust into the spotlight after a series of recent reports by The Bay Citizen revealed that the Postsecondary Bureau had failed to aggressively investigate complaints, monitor the quality of educational programs or to track and punish unaccredited schools and diploma mills. After the articles were published, the Postsecondary Bureau’s enforcement chief resigned. The state shut down a school featured in one of the articles after the United States Department of Education began an investigation.

Assemblyman Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego and chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, drafted legislation requiring unaccredited, for-profit, postsecondary schools to disclose the limits of any degrees and to post catalogs and other reports on their Web sites. A committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for April 17.

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