Lawmaker Proposes New Rules for Vocational Schools

by Jennifer Gollan, Bay Citizen

A California lawmaker is calling for the state’s private vocational schools to be more transparent about their accreditation status and the quality of the degrees they offer.

Assemblyman Marty Block (D-San Diego), chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, has written legislation requiring vocational schools that offer associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees to disclose in their course catalogs whether they are accredited, and if their degrees carry limited value.

About 400,000 students attend such schools across the state.

Block introduced his bill on Feb. 24 after reading a series of articles by The Bay Citizen, which revealed that California had allowed many unaccredited vocational schools to operate for decades without legally required inspections or evaluations of educational quality.

The Bay Citizen’s investigation also found that the state agency responsible for oversight, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, had accumulated a backlog of about 200 investigations into complaints against schools. The Legislature created the bureau two years ago to strengthen protections for students attending private vocational schools.

The assemblyman "read all of The Bay Citizen articles and knew that something needed to be done," said Courtney Miller, a spokeswoman for Block. "He fully believes in transparency, and this was a way to make sure these organizations fulfill their promises."

Block’s bill is designed to provide prospective students with information about a school’s accreditation status and financial stability. Currently only private vocational schools offering doctoral degrees in the state must report their accreditation status.

Graduates with degrees from unaccredited institutions have more limited job prospects. They are barred from many civil service jobs in states like California, Michigan and Oregon, as well as most jobs requiring professional licenses and teaching certificates.

Block’s bill would also require vocational schools to post their most recent annual reports, student brochures and course catalogs. Currently, private vocational schools seeking state approval must submit some documents about their programs to the bureau. But the state does not make all of these documents readily available on its website.

‘It is important that students have access to higher education in California,’ Block wrote in an email. ‘Unfortunately, unaccredited private post-secondary institutions are enrolling students and offering degrees without disclosing that the university has not met the same standards as accredited schools in California."

"We want to make sure that our schools are being as transparent as possible so that students are not surprised when their certificate doesn’t count when applying for jobs, especially in the public sector,’ he wrote.

Student advocates say they welcome Block’s legislation.

"To protect the disadvantaged students who disproportionately attend California’s for-profit schools, we need substantial changes to the state’s lax oversight system," said Elisabeth Voigt, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a civil rights organization based in San Francisco.

"We are encouraged that Assemblymember Block is exploring how the state can do a better job helping students make better choices," Voigt said.

If approved, the legislation would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. The Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, the agency that is under scrutiny for failing to provide proper oversight, would be responsible for enforcing the law.

Asked about the potential problems with placing more regulatory responsibilities on the bureau, Block wrote in an email that the bill "puts the onus on the school to make the disclosure."

"It is our understanding that BPPE is staffing up so it would be premature to say they don’t have the staff to handle their caseload," he wrote. "Our concern is making sure the students have accurate information regarding their degree."