By Angie Herrington
Tennessee's for-profit schools should more fully disclose information such as tuition costs and graduation rates to consumers, and the state should perform more on-campus visits to these schools, a study committee recommended.
The committee of state lawmakers and state higher education officials has drafted 40 proposed recommendations regarding the oversight of for-profit schools.
Private, for-profit institutions, also known as proprietary schools, specialize in offering programs in high-growth fields that cater to working adults. Those in the Chattanooga area include University of Phoenix and Virginia College.
The committee is scheduled on Jan. 28 to discuss which recommendations will be given to members of the House and State Education Committees.
Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said he will introduce legislation that reflects the five proposed recommendations he submitted as a member of the committee.
He said he's concerned that students at some for-profit schools are not informed up front that it may cost as much as $70,000 to complete a degree program.
"A lot of Tennesseans are being taken advantage of," Rep. Odom said.
About 20 percent of the 366,239 Tennesseans attending higher education institutions in fall 2007 were enrolled at for-profit colleges, according to data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Proprietary school enrollment in Tennessee increased 82 percent from fall 2002 to 2005 to a total of 20,601 students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by THEC. The number of proprietary institutions also jumped from 44 to 57 during this time frame.
Steven Cotton, vice president and general counsel for National College, which has campuses in six Tennessee cities, said some of the 13 recommendations he submitted deal with eliminating the distinctions that now exist in how the state regulates for-profits that are nationally accredited and those that are regionally accredited.
"There's just a hodgepodge of regulations out there, some of which make distinctions based on regional or national accreditation, and I don't think those distinctions are meaningful," he said.
For example, he said National College is required to call itself by a different name -- National College of Business and Technology -- in Tennessee because it is nationally accredited.
For profits must be authorized by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, but their programs need not be accredited.
The study committee was formed in response to a bill that passed last session calling for the General Assembly to take a broad look at for-profits, which are overseen by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Committee member Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Technical Community College, said one of his recommendations would require that institutions be accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency to obtain authorization by THEC to operate.
"I think the state of Tennessee has become very vulnerable because many of our citizens have been attracted to programs that are not accredited, and they incur substantial debt and they are not necessarily well prepared as members of Tennessee's work force," Dr. Catanzaro said.
National College's Mr. Cotton said there are some schools in Tennessee in which accreditation is neither feasible nor appropriate.
Not being accredited doesn't mean they are a bad school, he said.
Rather, it might mean accreditation for their particular programs are not available, or the school might be so small that accreditation might not be economically feasible, Mr. Cotton said.
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STUDY COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey
Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville
Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga
Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett
Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville
Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville
Dr. Richard Rhoda, Tennessee Higher Education Commission executive director
Ransom Jones, Tennessee Higher Education Commission board member from Murfreesboro
Dr. Jim Catanzaro, Chattanooga State Technical Community College president
James King, vice chancellor for the Tennessee Technology Centers
Ryan Ball, University of Phoenix
Joe Barlow, Director of Jackson County Schools
Dr. Faron Boreham, Tennessee Career College
Steven Cotton, National College
Steve South, president of South College in Knoxville