Increased oversight of private career colleges needed to protect students, report says

A Calgary non-profit is calling for more oversight of Canada's private career colleges after a report uncovered unethical treatment of students, misleading advertising practices and high-pressure sales and recruitment tactics. 

Recruiters often target newcomers and use high-pressure sales tactics, says author

There are 1,300 private career colleges across Canada, attended by about 170,000 students each year. The schools offer training for a multitude of careers, including truck driving, hairstyling, long-term care and office work. (CBC)

A Calgary non-profit is calling for more oversight of private career colleges after a report uncovered unethical treatment of students, misleading advertising practices and high-pressure sales and recruitment tactics. 

Momentum, which offers employment and skills training programs to low-income Calgarians, says its report marks the first time the private career college industry has been studied from the perspective of students.

There are 1,300 private career colleges across Canada and 190 in Alberta. About 170,000 students attend the schools across the country, seeking a range of careers, including truck driving, hairstyling, long-term care and office work. 

'Real gamble'

Courtney Mo, report co-author and manager of public policy research and evaluation at Momentum, said the students are predominantly women, older, have dependents and are more likely to have been born outside of Canada. 

"So, much more vulnerable learners, and we learned that private career colleges can be a real gamble," she said. 

In one example, Mo said a newcomer refugee couple were recruited. They signed up at a college and took on about $85,000 in student loan debt without realizing they had enrolled in a program or a student loan in the first place.

"Their English skills are so limited that they didn't understand what was happening during these really exploitative, high-pressure sales tactics that were used on them and many other newcomer families," she said. 

Mo says that while many of these colleges are providing education that's vital to communities and local economies, there are also many that students say use strong-arm sales methods, offer poor quality instruction and provide lacklustre job opportunities upon graduation because of the college's reputation. 

"That's part of the problem. We don't have verified information on which ones are graduating people successfully and on to a good quality employment," she said. 

Mo said that while recruiters will often vocalize that information in a pitch to prospective students, it's not verified or provided publicly anywhere. 

"This is one of our recommendations, to see that type of information verified and publicly accessible to potential students so they can make a more informed choice about the quality of the college that they're considering," she said. 

Students share experiences

Single mother Kim Keeler attended one of these private career colleges in Calgary in 2015-16. She spent nearly $20,000 on her 10-month medical office assistants program — but she's yet to secure employment in the field. 

"They did tell me there were lots of jobs out there, but there's thousands of applicants into each job," she told CBC News. 

"I wouldn't want to spend that much money for only 10 months ever again."

Kim Keeler says her college promised many career opportunities following graduation, but she hasn't had any success in finding a job in the field she trained for. (Submitted by Kim Keeler)

The report also includes stories from students who have recently attended private career colleges — including one from a Calgary student who isn't fluent in English.

The student said the recruiter gave them bad information and was ultimately the one who filled out their application, took all of their personal information, including their social insurance number, bank details and copies of their ID.

"[They said] that we can register in this college in one of the programs and the government will give us money," they said. 

But they weren't told that by taking on a student loan, they could lose the income support they were already getting from the government. 

"After income support got to know of this and stopped our benefits, we realized that these actions were not correct," reads the testimonial.

"I advise every newcomer to consult their settlement worker before releasing their personal information to anyone or signing any documents they don't know what is written inside."

'Can be misleading'

Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, said the centre's clients often share similar concerns with them about private career colleges. 

"What we have seen for many years is that there is a number of career colleges out there that are not accountable to any real jurisdiction or any governance that we could have any recourse in case our clients feel they haven't been treated properly," she said. 

Anila Lee Yeun, CEO and president of the Centre for Newcomers, says clients often report private career colleges using misleading tactics. (Centre for Newcomers)

Lee Yuen said there are often lofty promises made to clients about what they can expect in terms of their career options upon graduation.

"That can often be misleading.… We often find that our clients are spending a lot of money that they don't have for certificates that aren't going to be recognized or actually assist them to achieve their goals," she said.

In total, the report makes nine recommendations, including:

  • Addressing exploitative sales tactics.
  • Regulating private career colleges to ensure instructors are qualified.
  • Prohibiting unaccredited colleges from operating in Canada.
  • Mandating a tuition/fee cap.
  • Requiring legal and criminal background checks for owners of private career colleges.

"We found private career colleges that are owned by people with fraud charges, someone who had violated business rules in California thousands of times before they came to Canada to set up a suite of private career colleges in our country," said Mo.

"So we think that those background and legal checks are really important."

She said conversations with government officials have been promising. 


Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?