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Alberta's Private Colleges: Scams, Deception, & Calls for Regulation

  • 6 mins

Overview of Academic Institutions

In Alberta, there are Independent Academic Institutions (IAI) that predominantly offer diploma and degree programs in arts, science, and education. These institutions operate differently from comprehensive public colleges like Olds College and Bow Valley College. Let's take an overview of the education landscape in Alberta: Comprehensive Academic and Research Universities (CARUs) are the largest universities, offering a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs, along with research opportunities. Then we have Comprehensive Community Colleges (CCCs), similar to CARUs but on a smaller scale. Polytechnic Institutions (PIs), like SAIT, focus on practical and technical education, while Alberta University of Arts (formerly ACAD) falls under undergraduate universities. Additionally, there is one additional category, Specialized Arts and Cultural Institutions (SACIs), where only the Banff Centre falls.

 

What sets IAI apart is that they don't have to adhere strictly to government mandates. While they must follow some aspects of the Post-Secondary Learning Act, their Boards are self-appointed, and their mandate doesn't require government approval. Essentially, we must rely on their good faith to ensure adequate support and quality education for students. Notably, Alberta is the only province in Canada that funnels public money into private institutions. This poses a problem due to a lack of oversight, yet it has been tolerated as the five IAIs are considered non-profit entities.

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"More Choices"

Recently, significant changes occurred with the inclusion of Makami College in the list of IAIs in Alberta. What makes Makami different is that it operates for-profit. Ricardo Acuna's analysis reveals duplications in courses, leading to higher costs compared to publicly funded colleges. Interestingly, Makami doesn't excel in programs like Medical Office Assistant Diploma or Master Instructor, as it mainly focuses on massage therapy programs.

 

Adding a for-profit college as a solution to provide more "choice" seems misguided. Instead, reinstating funding to expand existing programs is a more viable approach. Over the years, the UCP has cut more funding from colleges than it has invested in them. Their complaints about the drop in the quality of public education are a consequence of their active dismantling of the public system. A similar issue exists in healthcare, where defunding the public system paves the way for a private system. The motivation behind these decisions isn't about "choice" but rather reflects legalized bribery and fiscal irresponsibility.

 

Scholars, like Samuel E. Abrams, extensively study the privatization of education, arguing that it's detrimental, whether through for-profit or non-profit management. Privatization leads to unnecessary atomization, creating confusion for parents seeking the right fit for their child. In the college context, multiple colleges offer nearly identical programs, leading to inefficiencies and the perception of some schools being better than others, further dividing students and creating demographic differences. Additionally, the lack of oversight in the hiring process impacts teaching quality. Later, we'll explore anecdotes from former staff members and students of private colleges.
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Legalized Bribery

The UCP's decision to change Makami's status to IAI raises questions given the campaign contribution of the Packovic-Tovissi family, who operate the college. Over the past few years, they've donated a total of $15,100 in campaign contributions to Danielle Smith and her party. Lobbyist groups, including New West, have lobbied for Makami College for several years, and financial contributions have spanned even to the NDP in 2017. Although lobbying isn't illegal, it raises ethical concerns when it leads to preferential treatment.

 

The Alberta government has defended its decision, stating that Makami College won't receive public funding, and the change aims to remove red tape to facilitate student entry into the labor market. Makami's defense is that the government can aid students to become more involved in research projects and overcome learning challenges. However, Ricardo Acuna disputes this defense, asserting that the change doesn't reduce red tape and that IAI identification still opens doors for future public funding.

Scandals and Controversy

Private colleges are expected to be efficient and successful businesses, but that's not the case. Unfortunately, they have excelled at scamming hundreds of students and offering subpar education. Momentum's uncovering of this issue has been commendable, and even before their coverage, multiple stories were picked up by news outlets. For instance, CDI College settled a $1.9 million class-action lawsuit for failing to provide adequate education. Activities such as using coloring books instead of textbooks and watching movies on Netflix were part of the scandal, which isn't limited to CDI College but extends to other cases like ABM College.

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Momentum's Report

Momentum's recent reports on private colleges, with the latest one highlighting former students' and staff members' voices, have provided valuable insights. The 20-page document reveals how private colleges have mistreated and abused students' trust. Let's explore some of their statements and key highlights:

  • Non-existent job support after graduation
  • Unfulfilled promises of practicums
  • Misleading statements about 65% cost coverage through bursaries or grants
  • Lack of information about loans and misleading practices
  • Enrollment in unsuitable classes without refunds and deceptive course sign-ups
  • False claims about credits transferable to non-private academic institutions
  • Deceptive practices regarding original program costs
  • Instructors fired for requesting more student support
  • Issuance of incorrect tax slips during tax season
  • Recruiters prioritizing enrollment but ignoring students after signing up; missing referral fee payments
  • Some colleges lacking legal certification or permits, employing unqualified instructors, resulting in students losing $15,000 without certification or job prospects
  • Exploiting students' financial desperation and rushing admissions for unnecessary loans; some recruiters quitting due to ethical concerns
  • Inadequate support for instructors and outdated materials; passing failing students to avoid additional debt
  • Colleges employing aggressive sales tactics without informing students about the end of loan benefits
  • Intentionally placing students in classes to fail and retake them for financial gain
  • Racialized women instructors facing underpayment and mistreatment

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It's a Scam

Using the term "scam" is not to be taken lightly. In Alberta, a one-year Paralegal certificate program at a private college can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 or more. Shockingly, some of these private colleges charge significantly more for a two-year diploma than what a certified diploma or bachelor's degree would cost at a four-year institution. What's worse is that students are being misled into enrolling in programs that lack proper certification, leaving them with credentials that employers across Canada do not recognize. To add to the concern, some of these private colleges hire instructors who may not even be qualified for the courses they teach. These institutions resort to deception and unethical sales tactics to prey on vulnerable clients, often newcomers. The lack of regulation has allowed legal scams to unfold right before our eyes.


Addressing this issue begins with raising awareness within our communities. Until we see a change in government that actively enforces regulations, we will continue to grapple with an industry willing to exploit people's vulnerabilities and aspirations for social mobility. This is not to say that all private colleges are inherently bad; however, there are serious systemic issues associated with their presence. What we need is a system that prioritizes safety and the highest-quality private career colleges in Canada, as aptly proposed by Jeff Loomis, the Executive Director of Momentum. Until then, it is essential to hold the UCP government accountable for their complacent, unethical, and hazardous approach to private colleges and public education.

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