Toothless Watchdog

You might expect our regulation-happy state to have a toothy watchdog agency to keep students from getting ripped off by shady colleges and diploma mills. If so, you'd be very, very wrong.

The agency charged with keeping tabs on more than 1,500 for-profit schools, the Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, has been dysfunctional for most of its existence, according to legislative reports and consumer advocates. To make matters worse, at the stroke of midnight on July 1st the law that gives the Bureau its authority will expire, and the agency will officially disappear in a puff of smoke. Staff members have been fleeing in droves, according to a spokesman, and the office is apparently in shambles — it was unable to provide basic public records regarding the California Culinary Academy.

State legislators are scrambling to put together two bills — one piece of emergency legislation that asks schools to voluntarily comply with the expired law for the next seven months, and another big reform package that will take effect in January. Until then, however, students with complaints about their schools will have nowhere to turn. Betsy Imholz, who works on for-profit education for the Consumers Union, is understandably unhappy with this situation. "I'm concerned that the students will get ripped off in the meantime, while we're all trying to figure this out," she says.

California has been struggling to manage the unruly for-profit education biz for more than 20 years. "Historically, California was the diploma mill capital of the world," says Imholz. After a series of scandals in the '80s led to congressional hearings, Maxine Waters pushed a bill through the state legislature that wrote many student protections into law. 1997 brought further reform legislation that most agree just made things more difficult — the current law is so complicated, even schools that want to follow the rules have a tough time.

In 2005 a scathing state-mandated report described the Bureau's "20-year record of repeatedly identified, fundamental problems." It noted that the Bureau did not conduct the unannounced site visits required by law; had never placed a school on probation, much less revoked a license; rarely assessed fines against schools; and did not verify the "placement rates" that measure how many graduates get jobs in their chosen fields. The report also noted that the Bureau does not even have the authority to order schools to refund money to ripped-off students.

Advocates say the needlessly complicated law governing the Bureau wasn't the only reason why enforcement was so lax. "Frankly, it felt like a lack of will," says Imholz. She notes that the Bureau's previous chief, Michael Abbott, is now working for Corinthian Colleges Inc., one of the largest for-profit education corporations in the country.

The specifics of the big reform bill, authored by state Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, are still in flux. One current idea is to replace the disgraced Bureau with a more open board that would be required to hold public meetings. Michael Miiller, one of Perata's legislative aides, says they also hope to streamline the approval process for new schools and write regulations for Internet-based schools.

Finally, they want to do some serious dental work to give the watchdog some teeth. "Getting a meaningful enforcement program in place — that's the key to the whole thing," says Miiller. "Right now it just doesn't work."

 
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