Agency questions culinary school’s job placement rates

by Erica Perez, California Watch

One of the agencies that accredits San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy is questioning the veracity of the college’s reported job placement rates ‘ ordering the school’s parent company to provide audited placement data by September in order to maintain its accreditation status.

The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges issued the order to Career Education Corp., a Schaumburg, Ill.-based for-profit college company, earlier this month. California Culinary Academy is one of 10 schools included in the directive, according to a recent company filing.

The move marks another round of scrutiny of the claims Career Education makes about job opportunities students have after attending its schools. Career Education agreed in 2010 to pay $40 million to settle a class-action lawsuit in which former students said the California Culinary Academy had misled them with its claim that 97 percent of graduates got jobs in the field.

The suit also claimed that California Culinary Academy deceived students by promising robust career placement services that never materialized.

In 2011, the New York attorney general issued a subpoena requesting information on several aspects of the company’s operations, including its employment outcomes. Also last year, another accrediting agency, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, issued a show cause order demanding that the company provide more accurate job placement data.

As a result of that inquiry and the new data submitted by Career Education, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools determined earlier this year that 85 percent of the Career Education schools it accredits ‘ 60 out of 71 campuses ‘ fell below the agency’s 65 percent placement rate standard.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools did not revoke the schools’ accreditation but is implementing additional oversight of the 60 campuses. The agency placed four of these campuses on probation for posting job placement rates of 40 percent or below. Those campuses are Sanford-Brown College in Indianapolis; Sanford-Brown College in Milwaukee; Sanford-Brown Institute in Landover, Md.;and the online campus of the International Academy of Design & Technology.

Also as a result of that probe, Career Education plans to post its revised job placement rates on each school’s website in the next couple of weeks, company spokesman Tony Mitchell said. Mitchell said he did not know whether the California Culinary Academy’s rates would be revised.

While the current show cause order could lead the accrediting agency to revoke the colleges’ accreditation, such actions are relatively rare. From May 2011 to May 2012, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges issued 41 show cause orders and revoked accreditation at seven schools.

Michale S. McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, did not comment on the details of the inquiry into Career Education. But he did say prospective students should be aware that in many cases, the company’s reported job placement rates were wrong.

"I think that students should certainly look at and be cognizant of the data that the schools are providing, and that my agency or another agency has been looking into the accuracy of that," McComis said. "That’s an important part of their decision, in making choices about enrolling at any institution."

Mitchell, the Career Education Corp. spokesman, said the company is confident it will maintain accreditation.

"I’m not in a position to guarantee the outcome of the ACCSC show cause action, but … we were able to successfully resolve the matter with a prior accreditor, and we have taken a number of steps in addition to just verifying the placement data," he said. "It leaves us feeling confident about our policies and practices."

In California, lawmakers are debating AB 2296, which would put in place more stringent criteria for calculating job placement rates. Currently, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education allows colleges to count graduates as "employed in the field" if the skills they got through their education provided a "significant advantage" in obtaining the position.

That has allowed some colleges to overstate the number of graduates who are putting their education to good use, said Elisabeth Voigt, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group in San Francisco that supports the bill.

SB 2296, by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-Lemon Grove, would push the bureau to tighten the requirements for counting a student as employed in the field. It passed the Senate Education Committee last week.