No to diploma mills

California has a reputation as a haven for diploma mills, for-profit trade schools that charge thousands of dollars for questionable training that doesn't bring students the prosperous careers as chefs, beauticians and lab techs they had expected. The state's regulation of these schools was never strong, but since a compact governing them lapsed this year, public oversight has virtually disappeared.

Legitimate trade schools -- and they do exist -- should be among the most alarmed by this sorry situation. Their unsavory brethren are giving the entire industry a black eye with aggressive, boiler-room sales tactics. Students pay tuition that commonly ranges from $15,000 to $25,000, and sometimes end up with worthless training. As a result, some high schools have even banned recruiters from campus.

In a state where you can't be licensed as a massage therapist without meeting a host of regulations, these schools set up shop with no real requirements about the quality of their curricula or the credentials of their teachers. Nor is accreditation a guarantee; accrediting agencies have weak enforcement powers, and some are as sketchy as the schools they oversee.

The governor can start fixing this by signing SB 823. It would require trade schools to disclose such information as graduation and job-placement rates, as well as the real salaries of graduates, on their websites and both orally and in writing to prospective students.

The bill, written by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), is a helpful beginning even though it lacks an important safeguard: The state needs a new agency with teeth to set and enforce standards for quality and ethics. If schools fall short, the state could impose disciplinary action; Oregon required one school to change its marketing script. The worst offenders could be closed.

California's estimated 1,600 for-profit trade schools enroll 400,000 students -- more than the entire California State University system. Nor is this just a matter of letting the buyer beware. Taxpayers also lose out when they subsidize the loans and grants under which many of these students attend school.

In rocky financial times, ever more laid-off workers look for quick training in a new career. It's imperative to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of state residents, and for California's economic future, for vocational schools to deliver on their promises.

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