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Momentum calls for accreditation, accountability for private career colleges

Calgary-based employment and skills training charity Momentum is calling for changes to regulations surrounding private for-profit career colleges.

The recommendations follow a report on the private college industry in Canada, that presents a damning indictment of some, but not all, of Canada’s for-profit career colleges.

“For somebody who’s trying to get ahead, we’ve learned that a private career college education can be a real gamble,” said Courtney Mo, manager of public policy research and evaluation at Momentum.

“We think that post secondary education should be a safe and successful choice for students.”

At issue for the charity is the at times predatory relationship that some colleges have towards immigrants, especially women in low-income situations.

Referenced in the report are statistics that show private career colleges have far higher rates of female enrolment (75 per cent versus 51 per cent for public post-secondary), target women with dependent children (33 per cent versus 17 per cent for public post-secondary), are low income (41 per cent under $20,000 gross household income versus 33 per cent for public post-secondary), and have debt over $10,000 (31 per cent versus 15 per cent for public post-secondary).

“It’s pretty heartbreaking to hear in some of our one-on-one interviews, and in focus groups, the real challenges that that students had experienced after spending their time, their energy and their money on a program that they thought was going to get them ahead, and that instead has saddled them with debt and very limited job opportunities,” Mo said.

Consumer protection for students

Mo said that Momentum’s goal isn’t to end the private career college industry in Canada. They want to protect students from poor quality and predatory colleges.

“Let’s ensure that a private career college education in Canada is a safe and successful choice for students, in part because industry is so important,” she said.

“We recognize that private career colleges prepare people for careers that are vital to our economy. We wouldn’t have truck drivers, tech support, or long term care workers without this industry being able to meet that demand.”

The National Association of Career Colleges (NACC) said the vast majority of the responses in the analysis indicated generally positive experiences.

“NACC represents over 450 provincially regulated career colleges that work closely with their regulators to ensure excellent student outcomes,” said Michael Sangster, CEO of NACC.

“We believe the report deserved a thematic analysis of these positive student experiences as well.”

While the report found the majority of reviews for private for-profit career colleges were positive, approximately 15 per cent of the Alberta reviews -695 total—were negative. The report also discarded all reviews left by clients of student services, rather than students, in an effort to focus on student experience.

NACC said as a regulated sector, they strive to improve experiences and protect students.

“While we will review this report, we always stand ready to work with parties that want to share ideas and practices that can improve student outcomes at all levels of the post-secondary experience,” Sangster said.

Changes to protect consumers: Momentum

Among the policy proposals that Momentum is putting forward is an emphasis on greater consumer protection through transparency and insight into college ownership, enforcement of minimum education standards, and independently verified graduation rates and employment rates for graduates.

“It’s hard for students to determine the good colleges from the bad. We think there should be verified information publicly available for learners to make an informed choice and minimum standards so that students can feel safe and confident that they all receive value for their money,” Mo said.

She said that some students are paying upwards of $25,000 for programs that take less than a year, that come without the education career boost.

“These students, they want to get ahead, they want to go to school ,graduate, and get a great job, yet private career college graduates have three times higher student loan default rates than graduates from public universities,” Mo said.

According to Government of Canada student loan repayment data, for-profit career colleges had on average between 60 per cent to 70 per cent loan repayment rates for 2020—the last year data was available. The University of Calgary had 95 per cent.

Momentum policy recommendations for the private for-profit college industry. MOMENTUM

Pop-up predators

Mo said that often times limited English skills prevent students from obtaining post-secondary education from accredited institutions. Then, the heavy debt load from lower-quality programs further prevents them from obtaining further education.

“For example, a newly arrived refugee was recruited along with his wife to enroll in a private career college, even though they both have very limited English skills,” Mo said.

“They were signed up for $85,000 in student debt for a program that they never attended, because they had no idea they had even signed up for a program or a student loan. It was exploitative, and high pressure sales tactics were used to enroll this family and many others.”

These are sales tactics that Centre for Newcomers CEO Anila Lee Yuen has seen first hand.

“When our building was in a mall, we often saw these small career colleges that would pop up just because there were so many of our newcomer clients,” she said.

“I’d get stopped myself, and they were saying ‘hey are you looking for a new career? You can make $50,000 and all you need to do is do a two-month training course.'”

She said it was frustrating to see, because newcomers to Canada are often looking for ways to upgrade their credentials to be recognized in Canada. They may not know the difference between an accredited and unaccredited career college.

Yuen said the loans can have far reaching impacts on immigrants, beyond just being unable to further their education in the future.

“The savings that you spent your entire life saving for so that you could come to Canada and start a new life, be able to take care of your kids, and give them better educational opportunities and all those different things, you’ve now been swindled out of,” Yuen said.

“People will get saddled down with this debt for many, many years. If it’s a student loan that they were able to procure, then it bars them from being able to apply for any other kinds of government grants.”

Helping students choose the right career colleges instead of the wrong ones

While the Centre for Newcomers doesn’t make educational choices for their clients, Yuen said that they can help them navigate the pitfalls of choosing a college to receive an education at.

She said that as an organization, they were 100 per cent behind the policy recommendations that Momentum has made.

“It’s important for us to stand with Momentum, and in our meetings with government officials to highlight that we validate, as community members, working with newcomers all the information that’s in here, and that we also recommend these policy changes for the betterment of the community.”

Mo said that she believes the policy implementations can be implemented quickly, and said that Momentum has had conversations with with the Ministry of Advanced Education.

“We’re feeling positive with our communications with advance education thus far, and feeling hopeful about their commitment to improving consumer protection for students,” she said.

“We have been speaking to policy experts across the country, industry representatives, former staff of privacy colleges, and learners themselves to help inform our policy recommendations in terms of both need, and also the possibility for success in those policy changes.

“We’re quite confident in our recommendations, and I hope to see them achieved.”

The full report from Momentum is available on their website at momentum.org.