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At Vocational Schools, Complaints Mount as Oversight Lags

At one school, nearly half of nursing graduates failed a national licensing exam

Rebecca Solomon struggled during her brief internship at a women’s clinic in Salinas.

Although the internship was required to earn a degree as an ultrasound technician, Solomon said she lacked fundamental skills, like how to perform ultrasound exams on pregnant women. Frustrated, she quit the internship after two weeks. She is now working at a Cost Plus World Market.

She blames the Institute of Medical Education, a postsecondary vocational school. Now, she finds herself deeply in debt and without the skills necessary to get the jobs she thought she was being trained to do.

When Solomon complained to the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, established by the Legislature two years ago to strengthen protections for students at private vocational schools, she said she was told that the bureau did not have the staff needed to investigate her complaint.

Thousands of Californians find successful careers after attending private vocational schools — from beauticians and medical assistants to computer programmers and truck drivers. There are about 1,500 private, postsecondary vocational schools in the state, with an estimated 400,000 students. But despite hundreds of complaints, the bureau gives students little guidance in knowing which schools are best qualified and indeed does not fulfill many of its core oversight responsibilities.

Solomon, 26, of Monterey, said she paid $20,000 in tuition and fees to the Institute of Medical Education, which promised her she would get the education she needed to receive an ultrasound technician degree within 18 months. But the institute, which has campuses in San Jose and Oakland, “didn’t give me the education that was promised or that I needed to go into the field,” she said.

“This was supposed to be a career for me,” she said. “Now, I am basically stuck paying this $20,000.”

The Institute of Medical Education offers certificate programs in vocational nursing, medical assisting and other health-related fields, and associate degrees in dental hygiene, for fees as high as $40,000. In the last three years, Solomon and five other students have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau of Silicon Valley about the quality of the program.

This fall, regulators from the California Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians placed the institute’s accreditation for its vocational nursing program on “provisional status,” after many graduates were found to be failing the national licensing exam. A national accrediting body affiliated with the American Dental Association recently issued a warning that the institute’s dental hygiene program could lose its accreditation early next year.

Khoi M. Lam, program manager at the institute, defended it.

“The Institute of Medical Education’s highest priority is to offer the tools, resources and opportunities for all students to succeed,” Lam said in a written statement. “Ultimately, it is the student’s responsibility to seize the opportunities and be proactive.”

Lam also disputed Solomon’s complaints, saying she had quit two internships and missed at least eight days of school.

“The complaints made by Rebecca Solomon concerning the inadequacy of the institution’s curriculum are not legitimate on many levels,” he said. “With so many absences in a single month, any student undoubtedly will struggle at any academic level, and especially with the advanced curriculum that IME offers its students.”

The Institute of Medical Education remains on the list of approved schools on the website of the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.

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