There are things that states like to be known for -- certain successful industries, popular products, historical landmarks or vacation spots -- and others not so much. In the latter category, certainly, is being a place that caters to dubious institutions of higher education. And for better or worse, Alabama has had that reputation in recent years, to the dismay of Bradley Byrne.
In his relatively new position as chancellor of the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, Byrne has a great deal on his plate, not least trying to end years of turmoil in the state's two-year-college system. But among his goals in his first year on the job, which he just completed, was trying to bolster Alabama's system for licensing and regulating private career schools.
It has been criticized for a bifurcated process that, by dividing responsibility between the postsecondary education department and the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, essentially left no one fully in charge, with a hardly unexpected result: turning the state into a haven for questionable institutions. In a 2005 essay for Inside Higher Ed, Alan L. Contreras, a national expert on diploma mills, called Alabama one of the "seven sorry sisters" -- states that go easy on dubious colleges.
To deal with that, officials of the Department of Postsecondary Education and the Commission on Higher Education have pushed legislation that would transfer authority to the commission, out of the belief that it is best positioned to do the job. But for two years running, says Byrne, lobbyists for some unaccredited colleges have successfully fought the measures, leaving state regulation in the hands of Byrne's agency.
While the agencies are continuing to push for the legislation, Byrne says he isn't holding his breath. He has directed officials within the postsecondary education department to redraft its current guidelines to increase their rigor, which he expects to unveil in the coming months, and in the meantime, he has encouraged its officials to more rigorously enforce standards that are already on the books. "What I've told our folks is, if we're going to keep doing this, we're going to do it right," Byrne said in an interview Monday. "[Schools] may think they're going to get less regulation from us than they would from the Commission on Higher Education, but we're going to try to make sure that would not be the case going forward."
The early indication is that the changes are making a difference. Since April 1, the department has revoked the licensure of three institutions (including Columbus University), rejected applications for licensure from two others (Queen’s University of Brighton and Faith in Action Business Access Online) and declined to renew the licensure of 13 other institutions, including Breyer State University-Alabama, which is not accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Ten of the 18 institutions were no longer operating in the state anyway -- many of them real estate schools that were victims of the housing bust -- but several others appear on lists, like the one maintained by Contreras in Oregon, of unaccredited institutions whose degrees are not recognized by their states.
Breyer State officials could not be reached for comment Monday, but the institution is reportedly appealing the agency's decision this week.
"The bottom line," said Byrne, "is that we are going to enforce all present standards rigorously. Alabama is a state in transition to a new economy, a knowledge economy, and we have to make sure that the people of our state are receiving the highest level of education that we can provide. We don't want to let people use our system to take advantage of people in our state, by signing somebody up, letting them in, and delivering to them an inferior product. We're not going to let that happen in Alabama. Our people deserve better than that."
Better late than never, said Contreras, of Oregon. "The state of Alabama is finally taking its oversight responsibility seriously. It has been one of the last resort states for low-end providers of unaccredited degrees."
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