Another state comptroller’s audit has caught our attention — and this time not for the subject’s testy response. In fact, in this case the audited agency, the state Education Department, agreed with all the comptroller’s criticisms regarding its supervision of for-profit, or “proprietary” schools. Lack of supervision is more like it.
You won’t find these schools in The Princeton Review or U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, but they play a big — and growing — role in higher education. We’re talking about schools that don’t grant degrees but provide training and job placement in such fields as cosmetology, computer programming, business, real estate and plumbing. In New York state, some 46,000 people attended them in 2012.
The schools fill a need, providing a career path for young adults starting out and older ones changing careers by choice or necessity. A college education is a wonderful thing, but not everyone has the time, interest or money to spend four years getting one. And these days, as so many debt-saddled young people are finding out, after graduation there’s no assurance of getting a job in one’s chosen field.
Career-oriented programs at community colleges are an alternative, a major reason they are bursting at the seams. And why enrollment at proprietary schools is growing fastest of all, with many of their students poor and minority.
Students at these schools are eligible for the same kinds of federal aid and loans, and state tuition assistance, as those at two- and- four-year institutions. Although some education elitists may think otherwise, that’s how it should be. The schools are providing students with educational opportunity and a career skill with which to become productive members of society.
Most are on the up and up. But there have always been some for-profit schools that aggressively recruit under-qualified students with promises of good training and a job at the end, take their tuition money, and don’t give them the help they need to succeed. And since 2009, when the federal government made more students eligible for Pell Grants and increased the maximum award by $600, there’s likely more of them.
Unfortunately, the state Education Department would be hard pressed to tell you which is which. That’s because, the comptroller’s audit shows, its oversight is so lax.
Of 491 private career schools, 292 (59 percent) did not submit enrollment, graduation and job replacement information, as the law requires. And the department, which itself is required by law to act on license applications within a year, failed to do so nearly half the time.
The auditors also found that the department relied on public complaints to identify unlicensed schools and was too slow to investigate when they were identified. They sampled 100 open investigations and found 18 schools that appeared to be operating without a state license, leading to the reasonable conclusion that a significant number may be doing so.
The Education Department acknowledged all this, basically blaming it on insufficient staff (the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision had just 20 employees at the time of the audit) and an outdated computer system developed 25 years ago. It says significant changes have already taken place, including hiring more investigative staff and starting to construct a modern information management system. These changes were made possible thanks to 2012 legislation that increased licensing fees for career schools from $250 to $5,000.
The Ed Department has to get better at this — fast. As the comptroller says, “millions of dollars and the education of thousands of New Yorkers are at stake.