San Jose Mercury News. April 13, 2014.
California's oversight of private career colleges could be heading for a major remake after an audit found the state's regulatory bureau has done a poor job of protecting students from fraud and deception.
Inspection backlogs and lagging investigation times -- the bureau took 502 days to complete a probe into an alleged sham flight school and didn't flag it as a priority -- have allowed abuses to persist and unlicensed schools to operate illegally, the auditconcluded.
"It has consistently failed to meet its responsibility to protect the public's interests," reads the title of the audit report on the state's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.
That single line "said quite a lot," said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who heads the Assembly Committee on Business, Professions and Consumer Protection. "It certainly got my attention."
Committee members from both houses plan a public hearing April 21 on the audit and a bill to reauthorize the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009, which -- along with the bureau -- is set to expire in January.
Expect a dramatic rewrite, Bonilla said.
The state auditor's report comes as the private career college sector falls under increasing scrutiny nationally for high rates of student loan default -- an indication that former students earn too little to pay off their college debts.
The state relies on private vocational institutions to train and license its citizens, Bonilla said, and it must ensure they are legitimate and reputable.
"It's just not OK for these inspections not to be happening," she said.
State lawmakers had already been looking at many of the issues raised in the report, including the bureau's staffing and expertise, said Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, chairman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee.
His overarching goal in reauthorizing the bureau is to make sure the legislation gives "clear policy direction and sufficient funding resources to protect students and enforce the law," Williams said in a prepared statement.
This wouldn't be the first time California made big changes in how it regulates private career colleges.
The bureau is only four years old. Lawmakers hoped it would be an improvement over its predecessor, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.
The old bureau shut down in 2007 after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill to extend oversight regulations set in the late 1980s. For the next three years, California's more than 1,000 unaccredited private schools -- many of them, for-profit businesses -- operated without state regulation.
From the moment it opened in 2010, the new bureau was behind, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, which houses the bureau.
The department doesn't like the audit's title, Heimerich said, but otherwise agreed with the findings.
"For the most part ... the audit identifies problems we knew existed," he said.