CHARLOTTE, N.C.,None - There's a call for tighter controls on for-profit colleges, including Kaplan College in Charlotte.
Several members of Congress are now investigating following a series of Whistleblower 9 reports. After Eyewitness News aired those reports, Kaplan surrendered its license to operate its dental assistant program here.
Now, Eyewitness News reporter Jim Bradley has uncovered new questions about who's overseeing for-profit colleges in North Carolina.
At Kaplan College on Independence Boulevard, students continue to come and go, and so does controversy over the problems Eyewitness News uncovered in November. Those problems have gotten the attention of several members of Congress including, Sen. Kay Hagan, who said she is now directing staff to investigate tougher rules for all for-profit colleges, including Kaplan.
“Do you feel like there needs to be more oversight of for-profits?” Eyewitness News asked.
“I think there does,” Hagan said. “I think we need to be sure the students understand -- that it's explained to them, that the programs they're being told and what accreditation, that it is in fact that.”
That's exactly what students in Kaplan's dental assistant program said didn't happen at the Charlotte campus. Fifteen whistleblowers said Kaplan repeatedly led them to believe the dental assistant program they were taking was about to be nationally accredited.
After Eyewitness News’ November investigation, we learned the college had never even applied for that accreditation. Kaplan quickly laid out a $5 million plan to refund tuition and pay stipends to current and former dental assistant students and surrender its state license to enroll new students in the dental assistant program.
At about the same time, a national accrediting agency, JRCERT, was pulling its accreditation from a Kaplan radiography program in California. Kaplan is appealing, but California congresswoman Jackie Speier has choice words for all for-profit colleges.
“For-profit colleges that are really creating a black eye for the entire industry -- we've got to clean it up,” Speier said.
In North Carolina, the state legislature created a new seven-member state Board of Proprietary Schools that began overseeing for-profit colleges as of Jan. 1.
But Eyewitness News learned that by law, at least four of the board members -- a guaranteed majority -- have to be executives of for-profit colleges. In fact, Eyewitness News found five of the six members appointed so far have direct ties to the for-profit college industry.
For Chris Fitzsimon with N.C. Policy Watch, that's a potentially dangerous combination.
“The last thing we need are people who have direct financial interest, financial stake overseeing the product that makes them so much money,” Fitzsimon said.
Jack Henderson takes exception to that. He owns Charlotte's Brookstone College and is vice chair of the new state board.
Henderson said for-profit leaders know the industry best and points out that the state community college system will, at least for now, retain ultimate authority over licensing for-profit colleges.
But he admitted any student complaints about deceptive practices -- like those Eyewitness News heard from Kaplan College students in Charlotte -- will now go to investigators who will report to Henderson's state board.
“Are you the right ones to be complaining to?” Eyewitness News asked.
“I think we have a vested interest in protecting the reputation of the industry,” Henderson said. “And in that sense, we're going to look with a critical eye toward anything that doesn't look right or smell right.”
But that doesn't pass the smell test for Fitzsimon, who believes more independent oversight is needed.
“I don’t trust the for-profit industry and would think legitimate for-profit institutions would welcome oversight and accountability from folks outside their industry to make sure that they're doing things right,” Fitzsimon said.
One member of the new state board said he expects its power will eventually be expanded to include granting or suspending the licenses of for-profit colleges. Right now, the community college system still has that authority.
The state legislature would have to approve that. But it approved the law creating the new board without a single no vote.