Westwood College's online program under fire


by Lee McGuire / 11 News


Posted on November 10, 2009 at 7:22 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 11 at 2:08 PM

HOUSTON -- The Texas Workforce Commission has ordered a major career college to stop offering online courses to students who live in Texas, and may be close to a deal requiring students enrolled in online classes to travel to a physical campus.

In a letter dated October 9, a specialist with the Career Schools and Colleges division of the Texas Workforce Commission informed Denver-based Westwood College that it did not have a certificate of approval to offer Internet-based courses in Texas.

The school does have the proper certificates to operate physical campuses – one in Houston and two in Dallas.

On Monday, a Florida-based law firm filed a class action suit in Travis County, arguing Westwood has been charging tuition for online courses in Texas for years without obtaining approval from the state.

The student at the center of the suit is 22-year-old Courtland Walker, a Houston resident who took an online graphic design course from Westwood College in 2008.

“It just feels like someone stabbed me in the back,” Walker said. He says admissions officers pushed him to enroll in online classes, promising a high-paying job in graphic design after graduation.

“They had a good sales pitch,” Walker said.

Walker says he is now $15,000 in debt for a class he was told would cost $12,000. He said he didn’t learn anything of value in the online course. “I can’t recall anything new I learned in graphic design at Westwood,” Walker said.

Walker has already joined a group of former students in an arbitration case under way in Denver, and is also part of the new class action suit filed in Texas. The suit argues that Westwood’s former students deserve restitution because, it claims, Westwood was never authorized to offer online courses in Texas.

In its October 9 letter to Westwood, the Texas Workforce Commission ordered the school to refund Walker’s tuition.

A Westwood spokesman said the school has not decided whether to issue the refund. Gil Rudawsky said Westwood is working closely with the Workforce Commission to resolve both that issue, and the larger issue of whether it can offer courses online.

In a statement, Rudawsky said “Westwood College’s Texas campuses have maintained licensure with the Texas Workforce Commission since 2002. The TWC recently raised some concerns regarding the separate licensure of Westwood’s online college located in Denver, Colorado. Westwood is working actively with the TWC to address these concerns.”

“Licensing of online colleges in individual states is an ongoing and developing issue across the country as online programs become more and more popular,” the statement said. “It must be noted that Westwood’s online programs adhere to the same stringent standards and accreditations as its on-ground campuses.”

State laws have not adapted to the rapid growth in online education, Rudawsky said.

However, Jonathan Cohen, an attorney with James Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich, questions Westwood’s claims that state rules do not fully cover online learning. “The ‘distance education’ clauses in the state’s education code specifically refer to technology,” he said. “It’s not that the law has not caught up to online learning. Instead, the law has caught up to Westwood.”

Cohen’s firm filed the class action suit against Westwood in Austin.

Meanwhile, officials at the Texas Workforce Commission are discussing the future of Westwood’s online courses in Texas. Lisa Givens, a TWC spokesperson, said that Westwood has offered to “require all Texas residents interested in online programs to enroll through one of their Texas campuses and to take at least 25% of their program in a physical classroom environment.”
That would mean the hundreds of students taking on-line classes from Westwood would have to regularly visit the school’s campuses in Houston or Dallas, she said.

However, Rudawsky said Westwood has not made a final decision on how to proceed, calling the 25 percent option something the school is “exploring” with the state.