by Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

California’s private vocational schools must disclose critical details about the quality of their programs, including their accreditation status and graduation rates, under a bill signed yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will require vocational schools offering associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to indicate in their course catalogs whether they are accredited. Schools that are not accredited must inform students of any drawbacks to their degrees, such as whether certifying agencies would prohibit them from taking licensing exams.

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In addition, schools will have to post job placement and graduation rates, and how much graduates earn, among other data. The law also requires vocational schools to post annual reports, student brochures and course catalogues on their websites.

The legislation was sponsored by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, in response to a series of stories by The Bay Citizen, which revealed California regulators’ lax oversight of for-profit vocational schools and diploma mills.

The Bay Citizen found that the state agency responsible for oversight, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, had allowed dozens of unaccredited schools to operate for years without state approval or inspections. In addition, the agency did not investigate some complaints against schools or shut down illegal diploma mills – schools that offer dubious degrees for little coursework and that lack accreditation by a recognized government agency.

The bureau was launched in January 2010 to strengthen protections for students attending private vocational schools. It replaced a regulatory agency that was disbanded in 2007 because lawmakers deemed it ineffective. State regulators said budget cuts and hiring freezes had prevented the current bureau from holding more schools accountable.

Block said the new law improves protections for the 400,000 vocational students in California, many of whom are from low-income backgrounds.

“At these schools, students are often spending $40,000 or more,” said Block, who is chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “They are often doing so without sufficient information, and this will give them the information they need to make a smart consumer choice.”

Most notably, graduates of unaccredited institutions face limited job prospects. They are barred from many civil service jobs in states such as California, Michigan and Oregon, as well as most jobs requiring professional licenses and teaching certificates.

Despite past problems, bureau officials say they are prepared to enforce the law.

“Most of it will be on the schools to comply,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. “If schools don’t follow the law, it will be on the bureau to take enforcement actions. It is not like it is creating additional work for us, except that we will be checking to make sure the schools are making their additional disclosures.”

Following The Bay Citizen’s series, the state shut down a medical school that made false claims about its accreditation status and regulators pledged to investigate 77 schools operating without state approval. The bureau’s head of enforcement resigned, and Brown named a new bureau chief.

Student advocates praised Brown for signing the measure.

“This bill takes a big step forward in better protecting students,” said Elisabeth Voigt, a senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a civil rights organization based in San Francisco. “One of the major reasons this is so important is that it makes sure that low-income students have fact-based counterweights to very aggressive recruiting practices by for-profit schools.”

This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.

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