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Degrees of Pain

Trade schools have problems, but things were worse before regulatory boards were created

By Cecily Barnes

IN THE 1980s, fraud was rampant in the trade-school industry. Hundreds of trade schools went in and out of business, opening just long enough to pocket thousands from unsuspecting students, who would show up to class Monday morning to find no more than an empty building. The Los Angeles Times reported how one student had borrowed $5,500 to enroll in an auto-repair class only to find out the school had no garage, no tools and no cars.

In response to such horror stories, the California Legislature set up an independent regulatory board in 1989 to make sure schools were on the up and up. This Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education imposed minimum standards that trade schools would have to meet if they wanted federal financial aid. The council also managed a fraud fund to pay back bankrupt students who had been hoodwinked out of thousands of dollars from schools that slipped through the cracks. Today, all trade schools must meet the council's requirements for state accreditation and federal financial aid.

The problem is, like the Better Business Bureau, the council is and always has been funded by its member schools. Critics say the council bows down to its paying customers, overlooking its role as an impartial intermediary for students. While the council lives up to its responsibility to reimburse students who have been ripped off, it does not do as well in other areas, critics say--such as regulating schools that mislead their students by promising more than they deliver.

"Typically a complaint letter comes in, the school is contacted, sent a copy of the letter and asked to respond to it--that is, if the complaint has to do with violation of the law, " says Ken Miller, the council's executive director. "Then we would get back to the student."

But dissatisfied students say that schools really only have to meet minimum requirements and are allowed to skirt complaints not deemed technically illegal. Woes of mediocre education, out-of-date equipment and misleading promises about job placement are routinely ignored by the council, students say. And attorneys intimately familiar with trade-school lawsuits say that such complaints should be taken seriously.

"No education program that I know of transforms people overnight from unskilled workers into skilled high-tech workers," says Tony DeLaRosa, primary consumer law advocate and executive director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. "It's sad that there are people doing precisely the kinds of things the new welfare reform policy is trying to encourage--get an education and a job--and then they're being screwed in the long run."

DeLaRosa admits the council is efficient in returning money to fraud victims, but says it is much less effective at ensuring quality education.

Come the first of the year, the council's function will be taken over by the state's Consumer Protection unit, per Gov. Pete Wilson. Advocates who complained that the council wasn't doing enough now wish it were sticking around. "There will no longer be an independent body. It's been taken out of the realm of independent to make it more an arm of the governor's office," executive director Miller laments. "It's certainly not the decision I would have made, but then I wasn't elected by the people of California to make those kinds of decisions."

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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