Alabama chancellor cracking down on diploma mills

Published 2:00 pm Monday, July 14, 2008

Since April, the state Department of Postsecondary Education has rejected the license applications, revoked the licenses or decided not to renew the state licenses of 20 private, for-profit schools. Some examples cited by Chancellor Bradley Byrne and other department officials:

—In June, the department decided not to renew the license of Breyer State University in Birmingham after it awarded honorary doctorates to individuals based on their life and work experience and a financial contribution to the school.

—In May, the department revoked the license for Columbus University, which was operating out of a post office box in Mobile and was awarding degrees that were not recognized by employers or accrediting agencies.

—In June, the department non-renewed the licenses of seven real estate schools, at their request, because their enrollment had dried up due to the slump in the housing market.

– Phillip Rawls, The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s two-year college chancellor is adopting new requirements for private, for-profit schools that he hopes will drive out diploma mills and make sure students are getting their money’s worth.

The state Department of Postsecondary Education, headed by Chancellor Bradley Byrne, licenses private, for-profit schools, but in Byrne’s view, it had been doing little more than issuing licenses for a few years.

He unveiled new requirements Monday that will take effect Oct. 1. He said he hopes they will end Alabama’s reputation as being a state where weak regulation has allowed diploma mills turning out worthless degrees.

“To the taxpayers of the state of Alabama, what we were doing before was indefensible. We were not carrying out our function,” said Byrne, who has been chancellor for 14 months.

The new requirements include:

—starting annual licensing rather than licensing every two years.

—instituting higher licensing fees to allow the department to hire more staff to check on the schools and their courses.

—requiring schools to provide audited financial statements rather than unaudited statements.

—requiring all owners and directors to have good reputations, including no convictions involving moral turpitude and no successful suits for fraud or deceptive trade practices in the last 10 years.

—providing means to close schools that offer poor-quality courses.

Byrne’s department also plans to start publishing an annual report that contains information about public colleges and private, for-profit schools, including their costs and whether they are accredited.

Most of the 258 private, for-profit schools licensed by the Department of Postsecondary Education are not accredited, Byrne said. They range in size from small truck-driving schools to colleges with hundreds of students in many disciplines.

Byrne’s plan drew praise from Victor K. Biebighauser, president of the Alabama Association of Private Colleges and Schools, and Paul Hankins, president of the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Hankins, whose organization represents private, not-for-profit colleges, said more state oversight is needed because students are often unaware that they may be attending a school with courses that won’t transfer to other schools.

“Without this control, you’ve got students preyed upon every day,” he said.

Biebighauser, who’s also president of South University in Montgomery, said, “It doesn’t do us any good to have schools out there that aren’t legitimate.”

South University is one of a few private, for-profit schools exempted from regulation by the state Legislature because it was around before 1999 and has been accredited all that time by the Southern Associations of Schools and Colleges, the same organization that provides accreditation to the public universities in Alabama.