Lawmakers: State must crack down on diploma mills

by Jennifer Gollan, Bay Citizen

California has more diploma mills than any other state in the nation, but it is not doing enough to protect students from the unaccredited colleges and vocational schools that issue worthless degrees, state lawmakers said at hearing yesterday.

‘The increasingly diverse array of substandard education robs students of their time and money,’ said Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, chair of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. ‘The most serious consequences occur when people are hired for positions for which they are not qualified. The challenge for the Legislature is to establish an oversight structure that prevents predatory practices."

Among the measures Dickinson will press legislators to consider: providing state regulators with additional resources to undertake more investigations, requiring more thorough reviews to identify diploma mills, and encouraging California’s attorney general and local district attorneys to prosecute more diploma mills.

Dickinson outlined his plans after a joint hearing by the Assembly Higher Education Committee and the Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. The hearing followed a recent Bay Citizen investigation, which revealed that many unaccredited or questionably accredited colleges and vocational schools had been operating in the state without regular inspections or evaluations by the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.

The Legislature established the bureau two years ago to strengthen protections for students attending private vocational schools. Laura Metune, who became bureau chief last month, told lawmakers that she has a staff of 20 assigned to enforcement, but is still assessing whether they can inspect all of the schools seeking state approvals.

‘Our process is designed to make sure that these institutions meet minimum operating standards,’ Metune testified. ‘We are required to do 1,500 inspections a year. We are in the process of figuring out whether we can meet that.’
Metune’s appointment followed a series of Bay Citizen investigations that revealed the bureau had failed to properly oversee the state’s 1,300 technical, vocational and other private postsecondary schools. The series found that the bureau failed to vigorously investigate complaints, monitor the quality of educational programs, and track or penalize unaccredited schools. The Bay Citizen later found more than 130 postsecondary schools operating with expired state approvals.

After The Bay Citizen began publishing its reports, Karen Newquist, the head of enforcement for the bureau, resigned. In addition, the state shut down a school featured in one of the articles.

‘Your article clearly raised more awareness of the problem in the Legislature,’ said Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. ‘We need a better understanding of what diploma mills are and to make a determination of who is best to regulate and to prosecute these diploma mills.’

Block introduced a bill last month requiring postsecondary schools to disclose crucial information to students, such as their accreditation status and job placement rates. If approved, the bill would take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

During yesterday’s hearing, consumer advocates testified about the diploma mill industry’s rapid rise.

‘This is a really big deal. It is not mom-and-pop printing degrees with a laser printer on their kitchen table,’ said John Bear, the author of ‘Degree Mills’ at the hearing. ‘More than half the Ph.D.’s in California are fake.’

Bear held up a counterfeit degree from Harvard that he said he bought online for $39.

Steve Boilard, the managing principal analyst for education from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, testified that it will not be easy to root out diploma mills.

‘It is not hard to find them if you are looking for them,’ responded Marcia Trott, the former head of the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Schools, which shut down in 2007 after lawmakers deemed it ineffective. ‘There are plenty of laws on the books. We just have to have the political will to enforce them.’