The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, which oversees complaints regarding for-profit colleges, is part of the Department of Consumer Affairs
The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, housed in the Department of Consumer Affairs, oversees for-profit colleges.

In summary

With some for-profit colleges coming under scrutiny in recent years for aggressive recruiting and financial mismanagement, we were curious: What kinds of complaints were students filing with state regulators? And how were they responding?

How is California regulating for-profit colleges? That’s the question CALmatters and The Sacramento Bee sought to answer when we requested student complaint records from the state’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.

The bureau licenses more than 1,000 of these and other private vocational schools to operate in the state, from beauty schools to online colleges. It’s also charged with responding to student concerns and managing a state fund that reimburses students for costs when a school closes.

With some for-profit colleges coming under scrutiny in recent years for aggressive recruiting and financial mismanagement, we were curious: What kinds of complaints were students filing with the bureau? And how was the bureau responding?

Unfortunately, in most cases, we still don’t know. The bureau denied our request for complaint records, citing an exemption to the state’s public records law for “investigatory or security files.” It’s the same exemption that allows police departments to provide only limited information about cases they’re investigating.

Attorneys for The Sacramento Bee argued that state law doesn’t exempt complaints made to a licensing agency from disclosure, only those to police agencies. The bureau disputed that in a four-page letter maintaining its refusal to release any requested records.

But blanket denials of records by licensing agencies pose a danger to democracy, said attorney David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for open government.

“There are an enormous number of agencies involved in licensing in California,” said Snyder. “The public should be able to see how these agencies are carrying out their mission and whether agencies are doing an adequate job of regulating the field they’re assigned to regulate.”

Bureau staff did point us to their website—but that lists only cases in which the bureau took disciplinary action, and doesn’t include the original complaint filed by the student. There’s no way to see how the bureau is handling cases in which it decides not to act.

In a separate letter to CALmatters, the agency’s lawyers said releasing the complaint files could create a “chilling effect on the bureau’s complaint-handling process.”  Withholding them, they argued, guards the confidentiality of those who complain, and protects current or future investigations.

They did not address why they couldn’t protect confidentiality by redacting personal information of complainants, however.

Other California state entities, including the Fair Political Practices Commission and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, provide copies of complaints in response to inquiries, though personal information is sometimes redacted.

“We try to find that balance between due process for people facing allegations and the public’s right to know,” said FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga.

Faced with a similar request, Florida regulators released records of complaints against for-profit colleges after reporters at the Miami Herald requested them.

We will continue to press for access. In the meantime, keep an eye on and The Bee for more coverage of for-profit colleges.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...