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Bentley Bill Would Benefit Contributor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblywoman Carol Bentley (R-El Cajon) is pushing a bill that would create a regulatory loophole worth at least $120,000 a year for a private computer college that was founded by one of her campaign contributors.

Bentley’s bill would exempt nonprofit Coleman College of La Mesa from complying with regulations of a new state council responsible for overseeing the financial affairs of most private post-secondary schools in California. They are mostly for-profit vocational schools that range from Bible institutes to one Contra Costa County university that has no campus but offers a Ph.D. in “sexuality.”

Complaints that some of these private schools are little more than “diploma mills” that thrive on misleading advertising and student-loan abuse prompted the Legislature last year to create the Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education. The council came into existence Jan. 1 and is responsible for regulating the financial affairs of the private schools.

The Legislature, however, provided an exemption for nonprofit schools that have been accredited by the Western Assn. of Colleges and Schools, whose members include the public California State University campuses.

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As a result, the council has no jurisdiction over private schools such as Stanford University, United States International University, University of San Diego, National University, Christian Heritage College, Heald Business College or Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego.

Despite repeated attempts, Coleman failed to receive the same kind of exemption for itself and other for-profit schools accredited by the Assn. of Independent Colleges and Schools. State officials say the AICS is a “deficient” educational watchdog, but that they have no complaints about Coleman’s program.

Undaunted, Coleman’s founder, past president and current chairman of the board says he wants to try again for a regulatory loophole. “The issue is fairness, it’s as simple as that,” said Coleman Furr, who is also past president of the AICS.

Although Furr and other Coleman officials say their school far exceeds financial standards set by the new state regulations, they concede that the new tuition refund policy required by the council will cost the institution $120,000 to $150,000 in student fees it would have otherwise kept each year. About 900 students are now paying an average $6,600 to attend the school, which was founded in 1963.

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Meanwhile, schools such as USIU--which has filed for bankruptcy and has a higher student loan default rate than Coleman--continue to keep a bigger share of the refunds by virtue of the legislative exemption, Coleman officials say.

“It’s really unfair to be in a situation where your business has to pay $150,000 a year more than the one across the street,” said Bob J. Wilson, a Sacramento lobbyist who blamed Coleman’s predicament on its lack of “political power.”

Coleman has since hired Wilson to finally get its exemption, and the lobbyist has been shopping around a bill that would prohibit the council from regulating any AICS accredited school that grants a baccalaureate degree--a description that fits only Coleman and another school in Long Beach.

The school eventually found a willing champion in Bentley, who was once a featured speaker at a Coleman graduation. Bently didn’t receive an honorarium, but the college’s alumni association gave her a $500 donation in late 1989. Public records also show that Furr and his wife donated $3,500 to two of Bentley’s recent campaigns.

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Bentley said she was aware that Furr was a campaign contributor because she remembered him from a fund-raising event. But she said she decided to help the college because “he is a constituent, and he’s being unfairly treated and being put at a competitive disadvantage.”

“I think I’m just more looking at this as trying to help somebody out that nobody was listening to,” she said.

But a state official said Bentley’s measure is “clearly a special interest bill” for Coleman that could also start a regulatory stampede by other, less reputable private schools.

“You would create an incentive for all of these schools in California that we’ve been having problems with to offer a baccalaureate degree and escape oversight,” said Bruce D. Hamlett, who works with the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

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