For-profit colleges need stronger regulations to protect job seekers 

As the economy in California remains in a slump, unemployed residents may be tempted to turn to vocational schools that teach a specified trade in order to land a new job.

There are roughly 1,300 vocational schools in the state of California. Approximately 400,000 students attend them every year. Tuition at these institutions isn’t exactly cheap. Eighteen months of education can cost a student as much as $20,000.

The hope of attendees is that the schools offer a more professionally focused education, one that will offer students instruction in nursing, automobile mechanics, the restaurant business, and other industries that will result in a well-paying job.

At least, that’s the elevator pitch. But, as media outlets have reported in the last few years, some of these schools take the tuition money, offer deeply substandard educations, and send students off with a degree that many hospitals and other businesses consider worthless. All too often, these students are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with no skills with which to work and pay it off.

For years, state officials have known about this problem. But the agency set up to regulate such schools and prevent or punish abuses in the vocational education industry — the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education — has been disgracefully underfunded.

In early May, state Assemblyman Roger Dickinson started doing something about it. At a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, he announced his intention to work with his colleagues on a bill that would crack down on these so-called diploma mills.

If Dickinson gets his way, the bill would provide more money to the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, require that the agency undertake a more systematic and rigorous investigation of vocational schools, and urge both the attorney general and local district attorneys to investigate and prosecute schools that scam their own students.

“The increasingly diverse array of substandard education robs students of their time and money,” Dickinson said at the hearing.

Dickinson’s initiative follows on the heels of state Assemblyman Marty Block, who recently introduced a bill to require that vocational schools clearly disclose their accreditation status and job-placement rates to potential students.
These are entirely welcome developments. Although many vocational schools offer a quality education, some are nothing more than scams perpetrated on our state’s most vulnerable people.

Schools should not promise students that they are virtually guaranteed well-paying jobs upon graduation, pushing them to take out loans for tens of thousands of dollars, and then pushing them out into the world with a mountain of debt and degrees of dubious merit. And for far too long, the state has done next to nothing to stop this. In fact, California regulators were so inept that in 2007, the state Legislature shut down and reorganized the bureau responsible for spotting and eliminating these practices.

As the economy continues to drag on, Californians may be increasingly tempted to take on substantial debts in exchange for an education and the promise of a brighter future. But Dickinson and Block are right to expect that the state play a meaningful role in ensuring that such students truly receive what they are being promised.

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