March 15, 2014 in Opinion

Guest opinion: State regulates private, career schools and protects students

Cindy Zehnder
 

Media attention in recent weeks has focused on ITT Educational Services Inc., a private, for-profit college being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for pressing students to take out loans with double-digit interest rates.

This isn’t the first time independent private career schools have come under fire. And it likely won’t be the last.

But it’s worth pointing out that many more of these schools are operating fairly here in Washington and providing training that leads to jobs. In fact, short-term, career-focused training offered at our state’s private career schools is a key piece of our state’s higher education system.

Just because they’re private doesn’t mean they’re unregulated, at least in Washington. The Consumer Protection Unit of the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (Workforce Board) regulates and licenses more than 300 schools offering short-term certificate training.

The vast majority are doing business the right way: They have a solid business plan, their instructors have industry-specific skills, their students complete their coursework on time and, in the best cases, graduate to jobs for which they’ve received training.

Of course, private, independent businesses come and go. It’s the nature of the marketplace. In most cases, because we work closely with schools and require them to update their licenses each year, we are able to see when a school may be facing financial difficulties and imminent closure. In many cases, we work with schools to find other private schools that can “teach out” their students. In other cases, schools simply finish out their classes and close with little fanfare.

Because of the licensing process we require of schools, we are able to ensure a level of financial stability and accountability that may not be present in other states. We go a step further here in Washington by requiring licensed schools to contribute to the state’s Tuition Recovery Trust Fund. The amount they pay into this fund is based on their annual tuition income. This fund helps compensate students when a school closes suddenly or unexpectedly.

But there are instances when closure happens quickly and affects students who are in the middle of their training. In those instances, Washington students can be helped by the Tuition Recovery Trust Fund, so they are not damaged financially. This happened recently in Spokane, with CNA Schools Northwest. In this instance, just a handful of students were impacted, but it was because of our state’s licensing system that they were able to be compensated financially. They also were able to complete their training in many cases because of the cooperation of other Spokane area private career schools.

For those who are considering whether to attend a private career school to advance their skills and prepare for a career, a good first step is to visit the Workforce Board’s online list of licensed schools: http://wtb.wa.gov/ currentlicensedschools.asp. The Workforce Board also offers practical advice on what to look for when choosing a school at http://wtb.wa.gov/ ChoosingASchool.asp.

Cindy Zehnder chairs the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, a partnership of business, labor and government that monitors the performance of Washington’s workforce training system and outlines strategies for improving the system.

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