Accreditation issues shut down dental hygiene program

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A dental hygienist training program in California abruptly shut down last week, leaving its students -- many of whom had prepaid up to $45,000 for the three-year program -- wondering what to do next.

On February 7, students in the dental hygiene program at the Institute of Medical Education (IME) received a letter stating that the institute would no longer be able to continue the program because its accreditation status was in jeopardy.

"I am so frustrated and depressed," said one first-year student who asked to remain anonymous. "My classmates and I get together and cry." She said they have talked to several attorneys, state agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) to find out what their options are.

The school, which has campuses in Oakland and San Jose, offers certificate programs in vocational nursing, medical assisting, and other health-related fields, as well as associate degrees in dental hygiene. The three-year dental hygiene program included 18 months of prerequisites and 18 month of a focused clinical program.

IME officials say that because the school's accrediting body, the Western Association of School and Colleges (WASC), has withdrawn its participation with the DoE, IME can no longer offer the dental hygiene program and has lost its eligibility to receive Title IV financial aid.

"Per the Commission on Dental Association (CODA), in order to operate a dental hygiene program, an institution must be accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education," Khoi Lam, program manager at the IME Oakland campus, wrote in the letter. "In light of these new obstacles, the Institute of Medical Education will not be able to start a future cohort for the Dental Hygiene Program."

CODA, an agency of the ADA, is the national accrediting body for dental and allied dental education programs.

David Brown, executive director of the WASC, verified that the association did voluntarily withdraw its participation with the U.S. Department of Education in 2010. However, he told, the WASC gave all the schools it accredited in this category (adult vocational schools outside of the K-12 system that accept Title IV funding) 18 months to partner with another accreditation organization.

"It is true that we voluntarily withdrew from our participation with the DoE in this category, but IME has known since June 2010 that we were doing this and they were notified," he said. "Of the 20 schools in this category that we accredited, 19 have already affiliated themselves with another accrediting body."

IME has now filed a lawsuit against WASC alleging breach of contract, he added.

Intent to withdraw

At present, the ADA website lists the IME's status as "Initial Accreditation (intent to withdraw)." According to the ADA, "intent to withdraw" means "a formal warning utilized by the Commission on Dental Accreditation to notify an accredited program and the communities of interest that the program's accreditation will be withdrawn if compliance with accreditation standards and/or policies cannot be demonstrated by a specified date."

On February 2, CODA met to discuss the school's accreditation status, according to the ADA. But CODA cannot comment on its decision with regard to IME's accreditation status until the school has been notified and the information made public on the ADA website. A letter was sent to the school last week, the ADA noted; information regarding the school's most recent accreditation status is expected to be posted online by ADA in the next two weeks.

“Of the 20 schools in this same category that we accredited, 19 have already affiliated themselves with another accrediting body.”
— David Brown, executive director,
     Western Association of School
     and Colleges

In the meantime, some second-year hygiene students at IME claim their graduation date has been moved from April to this month, while others say it has been moved to March, according to news reports. Either way, they are scrambling to finish their lab work in time.

"IME will continue its effort to secure a new accreditation but until then, the Dental Hygiene Program will be suspended indefinitely," Lam's February 7 letter states.

Lam did not respond to requests from seeking comment.

"This spring the first two batches (of dental hygiene students) were to graduate and take their state exams," said the first-year student, noting that she took out a federal loan and also used personal funds to pay the $45,000 tuition. "But now they can't even go take their tests. They invested all their time and money and can't take their tests because this has all been taken away."

In addition to the accreditation issue, IME is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor over possible wage and overtime violations and by California regulators who are looking into possible violations of state labor laws at the school. In recent months, the state's Department of Industrial Relations has received five employee complaints alleging that the school owed employees nearly $10,000 in combined back wages, according to a story by the Bay Citizen.

Even so, IME's dental hygiene program remains listed among the "currently approved" programs on the California Department of Consumer Affairs' Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education website. The bureau was established in 2009 to strengthen protections for students at private vocational schools.

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