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Private Vocational Schools Battling Disclosure Requirements

Schools' lobbyists claim that proposed legislation would not benefit students

Chris Dang

Private vocational schools throughout the state are fighting a bill that would require them to disclose key information to students, such as their accreditation status, job placement rates and whether the degrees they offer are of dubious value.

Assemblyman Marty Block (D-San Diego) introduced the bill after a series of articles by The Bay Citizen revealed that California had allowed dozens of unaccredited vocational schools to operate for years without required inspections or evaluations of educational quality.

The legislation would provide more protection for the approximately 400,000 students who attend private vocational schools across the state, Block said. The bill would also require schools to post on their websites student loan default rates and the average salaries of graduates in specific disciplines.

“This bill is about transparency and giving students the information they need to make an educated choice,” Block said. “For schools that are not accredited and have high default rates, students will know that now.”

The California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, an advocacy organization that represents more than 250 for-profit, nonprofit and religious private postsecondary schools, has argued the bill overreaches and provides little benefit to students.

"Requiring schools to disclose 'all known' limitations of a degree IN ALL 50 STATES is unrealistic and will only set up a school for failure and eventual lawsuits and/or government sanctions," Robert Johnson, the executive director of the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, wrote in an April 11 letter to Block

Reached by telephone, Johnson declined to comment. 

There are more than 1,300 private vocational schools throughout the state, but under current law, only those schools offering doctoral degrees must report their accreditation status.

Two Assembly committees approved Block's bill last week — the Higher Education Committee and the Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for May 9 in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, the state agency responsible for making sure the schools comply with regulations, would be responsible for enforcing the bill, if it becomes law.

The Bay Citizen found that the bureau had failed to aggressively investigate complaints and to crack down on more than 130 schools with expired approvals.

The Postsecondary Bureau’s enforcement chief resigned after The Bay Citizen published its investigation. The state also shut down a school featured in one of the articles.

Block said he expected more aggressive oversight from the bureau’s new director, Laura Metune, who took up her post on April 18.

“We are starting Laura with a clean state,” Block said. “I think we will see a real turnaround in the bureau.”

The Legislature created the bureau more than two years ago to improve protections for students attending private postsecondary schools.

Some students hailed the bill as a step forward for students.

"Students should understand if it is even a good idea to go to a private school," said Fiji Evangelista, a former vocational nursing student at the Institute of Medical Education. The state shut down the Institute's campuses in San Jose and Oakland campuses earlier this year.

"It is important to have this additional information so students are not cheated by the schools," Evangelista said.

But critics argue that the bill unfairly burdens private vocational schools. Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, vice-chair of the Higher Education Committee, was among two lawmakers who voted against the bill at a hearing by that committee last week. 

“I'm a strong supporter of greater transparency, but all colleges should be treated equally and this bill singles out trade schools," Olsen wrote in an email. "Additionally, we need time to evaluate the new regulations implemented last September before we move forward to adopt a whole new set of regulations.”  

Ed Howard, senior counsel at the University of San Diego School of Law Center for Public Interest Law, said students should be able to measure the quality of educational programs before paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. 

“We’re tightening the law to require additional disclosure,” said Howard, who helped Block write the bill. “Right now state law is broken.”

If approved, the legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

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