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A proposal in Gov. Scott Walker's budget would change how for-profit colleges are regulated.

JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

The secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services sought to reassure the state’s for-profit college oversight board Tuesday that a proposal to shift responsibility for regulating those schools to her agency would not weaken supervision of the industry.

But members of the Educational Approval Board were skeptical of whether the state department would have the expertise to scrutinize for-profit schools and protect their students, and voted to oppose the plan in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” board chairman Don Madelung said. “We’re not broken.”

Walker’s proposal would eliminate the agency’s board and shift its staffers’ jobs to DSPS.

Speaking to EAB members, DSPS officials pitched the move as a way to complement the agency’s efforts by maintaining its 6½ full-time staff positions and pairing them with the larger department’s legal counsel, investigators, consumer complaint division and other resources.

“If the EAB does go away, nothing else would,” Secretary Laura Gutierrez said. “I don’t think the regulations, I don’t think your best practices (or) the way you do business would go away.

“We would be protecting the students, and that would be our focus.”

Consumer advocates and government regulators have been critical of the for-profit college industry, saying some of its schools use misleading marketing and offer expensive programs that are of questionable value to graduates on the job market.

After facing increased scrutiny during the Obama administration, experts anticipate for-profit schools will experience less federal oversight under President Donald Trump, which could make the role of state regulators more significant.

Walker advanced a similar plan two years ago to shutter the EAB, which legislators later removed from the budget — something Madelung praised Tuesday as “common sense.”

Unlike the proposal Walker announced this year, that plan would have consolidated the work of the EAB’s staff and board into a single part-time employee.

Still, EAB members say they are concerned the move could cost the state valuable expertise.

Executive Secretary David Dies said board members have experience in the for-profit college field that the state officials who oversee DSPS can’t match. Among the board’s seven members are teachers and administrators in public, nonprofit and for-profit colleges.

Officials are also concerned EAB staff members might not be rehired when their jobs transition to DSPS, and that the department might instead fill those positions with new, less experienced employees.

EAB staffers would have the opportunity to apply for their positions at DSPS if the proposal becomes law, Gutierrez said, but they would not be guaranteed a job there.

Gutierrez said she would draw on her background in education — she was vice president of St. Anthony School, a private K-12 school in Milwaukee, before Walker appointed her secretary of DSPS last month — and devote the agency’s resources to training staff on the for-profit college industry.

“We have a success record, when you look at all of the different departments that we oversee,” Gutierrez said.

Although the board voted to oppose the change, members also committed to working with the department on transition efforts, saying they would start that planning even as lawmakers debate the budget provision.

Walker’s proposal calls for DSPS to take on the agency’s duties by the start of 2018.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.