Some Alberta post-secondary students are warning others not to consider some of the private career colleges in the province.
Thalia Gutierrez contacted Global News after getting a collection notice from the Visual College of Art and Design (VCAD) in Calgary. The young woman said she was being forced to pay thousands of dollars for an education she felt she didn’t even get.
“They threatened me,” she said. “I basically had to get the $26,000 in a few days. How can I get that in a few days?”
Gutierrez enrolled in the school’s interior design program a couple of years ago. She initially agreed to pay $42,000 in tuition fees for a 17-month course leading to a diploma.
“They (VCAD) talked marvelous things, fantastic things about the school, so I was excited,” she said.
“At first it was a lot of money, but they make it sound like, ‘Oh yeah, the talented kids go here. Gifted.’ And they make you feel like, ‘Wow you’re so special, so talented.’”
But Gutierrez said the program was actually plagued by faulty equipment, inconsistent staffing and consistent scheduling errors.
For my first term I was only enrolled in two (classes) instead of the four to six per term,” she said.
She decided to cut her losses a couple of months in.
“I felt like I couldn’t finish this. Not because I wasn’t doing my part as a student – I felt I was doing more things than I should as a student,” she said. “Why was I supposed to be chasing administration about my schedule?
“YouTube was my best teacher. So why was I going to pay them that much if I was going to do the teaching myself?”
Global News reached out to VCAD with Gutierrez’s concerns and claims.
“At VCAD, we pride ourselves on the exceptional educational service we provide our students,” VCAD’S head of marketing Andre Souza said in a statement.
“Our students receive hands-on training from professional instructors with at least three years of industry experience on top of a minimum of one year of teaching experience. VCAD students have access to industry-standard computers, software and materials to ensure they meet the needs of employers in Canada and abroad.”
The school said it had “outstanding high employment rates” amongst graduates with more than 84 per cent finding a job in the career of their choice within six months of graduating.
VCAD wouldn’t comment on Gutierrez’s specific situation but added any student not satisfied with their experience can appeal.
Gutierrez hasn’t done that yet and has now received a letter stating that her outstanding account of more than $25,000 is being sent to collections.
“Collection. They’re threatening to send me to collections,” she said. “I do not have that money.”
Advocating for change
Momentum, a non-profit offering employment and skills training to those facing financial barriers, told Global News it has heard these kinds of “heartbreaking” stories before. It published a report advising of some of the issues a year ago.
“We’ve been hearing from participants in our programs for many years now who’ve been struggling with high debt and few job opportunities as a result of attending a private career college that was really poor quality,” Momentum’s director of community impact Courtney Mo said.
Mo said most of these students are complaining about getting false and misleading information as well as poor quality instruction or instructors. The worst part, she added, is that most of these students are very vulnerable.
“Many are new to Canada. Some are refugees,” she said. “Learners with very real barriers and little understanding of their rights and recourse that they have against an institution. Initially, they felt really lucky to be accepted — but their dream quickly turns into a nightmare.
“It’s not a case of a few bad colleges — We’re talking about a system that is failing vulnerable learners.”
Mo said they, and other critics, acknowledge there are great private career colleges in the system and that they’re needed.
“They connect people to really important and rewarding careers. We wouldn’t have truck drivers or hair stylists or personal care workers, legal assistants – it’s a really important sector in our economy,” she said.
But she added the “bad” ones need to be called out and shut down.
“Unfortunately there are those out there to make a quick buck and have recognized that they can exploit vulnerable learners,” Mo said.
Private career colleges licensed by the province
Vocational training programs offered by private institutions must be licensed by the Government of Alberta in accordance with the Private Vocational Training Act and the Private Vocational Training Regulation.
According to the province, there are currently 223 private career colleges operating in Alberta offering over 1,250 programs to more than 63,000 students. The latest figures, from graduates in 2020/2021, show 88 per cent of graduates from licensed private career colleges found jobs.
A provincial spokesperson told Global News these private career colleges offer training programs that “fill an essential niche in the education system” and that last year only a small number of colleges’ procedures were found non-compliant.
The statement went on to say that in order to protect students and student aid funding, the province launched independent audits of the colleges in question. During that audit, any new program license requests from private career colleges and student aid for new students were paused.
That pause has since been lifted.
The government said it also launched an ad campaign in 14 languages to help students understand the risk of student aid fraud, protect their personal information and properly apply for student aid.
Global News has an interview scheduled on Tuesday with a private career college and the association representing the industry. The story will be updated when the interview has concluded.
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