Updated April 22, 2019, to reflect corrected information from John Fabry.
Almost a decade after the closures of a bunch of for-profit colleges left thousands of students with loan debt and worthless class credits, the Texas Workforce Commission still hasn’t provided a straightforward information system that might prevent a repeat of that debacle.
Instead, despite the urging of the Sunset Commission, the TWC presents potential students with a link-heavy, confusing process for figuring out what to expect from for-profit career colleges.
For instance, consumers have no way of finding out from the TWC that certain schools have been place on a federal watch list for financial or accreditation problems.
TWC, which is charged with oversight of about 500 for-profit and career schools, was urged in a 2015 Sunset Commission report to provide more detailed reporting on those institutions, which range from beauty schools to business colleges.
In 2002 and again in 2015, the Sunset Commission urged lawmakers to require the TWC to be more accountable in policing the schools. Lawmakers responded with new rules based on that advice. TWC changed some of its practices as a result — but in ways that still don’t help students.
The South Texas Vocational Technical Institute’s Weslaco campus appeared on the federal watch list in December, but TWC’s info on the school doesn’t note that information. As for the Rio Grande Valley College, also on the federal watch list, the TWC website’s link to the college site was dead. Being on the list is not an indictment, but for prospective students who are contemplating taking on debt in order to pay their school bills, it could be key information.
The agency’s portal listing closed career schools has not been updated since 2009, although numerous high-profile career schools have shut their doors since then — closings that were announced by TWC, including Texas-based American Commercial College and ATI.
Tech-savvy students might describe what they can find on the TWC site as cloaked portals, dead links and inaccessible access points — meaning information that is hidden, difficult to use, and sometimes leads to dead ends. Meanwhile, much of the information that is easily found on the site is tilted toward helping the operators of the schools.
One portal on the TWC career schools site directs college administrators seeking assistance and advice to a website for Career Colleges & Schools of Texas, a group that includes a PAC that backs for-profit schools. The group includes lobbyist Jerry Valdez, whose name hit the news most recently for his alleged collusion with TWC Commissioner Lisa Hughs in creating a rule favorable to tech-based companies, improving their ability to skirt paying unemployment benefits to workers.
The PAC, which has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to state lawmakers, was once headed by Brent Sheets, president of American Commercial Colleges, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2014 on charges of theft of government funds in connection with his operation of the schools.
The Sunset Commission suggested in its 2015 review that TWC provide information to make it easier for students to compare the schools, including by publicly posting enforcement actions against for-profits on the TWC website, “to help prospective students make more informed decisions about the schools they consider.”
“The only way for a potential student to get information about actions against a school is to submit an open-records request to TWC,” the Sunset report noted.
Despite a bill passed by lawmakers in 2015 requiring the posting, the TWC has not yet implemented a clear tool to allow the public to check on enforcement actions by school.
The agency also declined a Sunset Commission recommendation to link its web portal for career colleges to the agency’s Reality Check tool, which allows students to see which careers would best suit their cost needs.
In 2002, the Sunset Commission proposed eliminating the full-time board, with three members appointed by the governor and paid $189,500 annual salaries, and replacing it with a seven-member part-time board.
That was never done.
Legislation passed in 2007 requires the TWC to post any enforcement actions against career schools. That has not been done.
TWC Commissioner Robert Thomas, appointed in 2018 by Gov. Greg Abbott to represent the public on the three-member panel, did not respond to an email seeking an interview.
In response to questions from The Texas Monitor, TWC spokeswoman Lisa Givens sent an email with an attachment in which she said, “In the past three years (Fiscal Years 2015-2017), TWC has assessed penalties on 17 schools for noncompliance. These schools came back into compliance but later closed for reasons not related to regulatory issues.”
Givens also wrote that, “In response to the Sunset Recommendation in 2015, and subsequent legislation, TWC has made available a searchable list of schools where TWC took administrative action to revoke a license and a searchable list of administrative actions/penalties taken against a career school. These two documents are available at the following link, https://twc.texas.gov/jobseekers/career-schools-colleges-students.”
The link takes viewers to a document listing actions taken by the TWC between 2014 and 2016. There have been no actions since then, according to the reports.
Between 2008 and 2014, the number of students attending career colleges in Texas increased by 230 percent. Since 2012, 57 career colleges operating in Texas have closed.
“I would assume that if they have no investigations, they have nothing to report,” said John Fabry, an Austin attorney who is representing 109 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against DeVry, alleging the college inflated both the employment rates for its graduates and the estimated income potential provided by an education there.
DeVry, which in 2016 settled a $100 million lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission over deceptive advertising, continues to operate both in Texas and across the U.S.
A national watchdog group singled out Texas as a place where for-profit colleges can operate with little regulation. The 2014 report by the National Consumer Law Center noted that TWC has too much other work to deal adequately with rogue career colleges.
Given the agency’s list of duties, including handling the state’s unemployment program and addressing employment civil rights claims, the report said, “it is not surprising that in 2011 the TWC was caught unprepared when a local news outlet revealed that schools owned by ATI Enterprises, Inc. lied about job placement rates. Only after receiving harsh public criticism did the TWC take action against ATI.”
The disarray in TWC’s public reporting is also fueled by a system under which for-profits that include academic courses are regulated by Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the purely vocational schools by the TWC.
The TWC regulates career schools, consisting of trade-oriented programs such as plumbing, nursing and trucking, while the coordinating board presides over schools offering academic courses such as English, history and math.
So when the for-profit Brightwood Colleges closed nationwide in December, it was the coordinating board that made the announcement and provided students with instructions on how to get refunds, transcripts and other necessities.
Particularly confusing for students is when a school that offers both career-focused and academic-focused careers — like Brightwood or Career Point — closes, said Kelly. “As a student, you may or may not know which agency has oversight of your degree unless you go to your institution and ask, or dig into it. It isn’t readily available unless you know how to find it.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].