SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (CN) - Twenty-three students of Pacifica Graduate Institute's psychology program were left with worthless degrees after the school repeatedly misrepresented its accreditation status, the graduates claim in Superior Court.
The institute claimed to be accredited by the American Psychological Association, or at least on its way to accreditation, though it was not even close, the students say in the 65-page lawsuit.
Lead plaintiff Diana Downing and 22 other students sued Pacifica Graduate Institute (PGI) and seven of its administrators, on claims of intentional misrepresentation, concealment, negligence and unfair business practices.
The students sought degrees in psychology from a school accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the national accrediting authority for professional education and training in psychology.
Pacifica, which has campuses in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, recruited and kept students by telling them that it was APA-accredited or that it would be "any day," the complaint states.
Students were told they would be "grandfathered" in once the school received accreditation, which "was not 'if' but 'when,'" the students say.
"Despite having represented to its students and prospective students that PGI would be accredited 'any day' from as early as 2001, PGI only developed an 'APA self-study plan' in 2007. The agents and representatives of PGI knew that the APA accreditation process would take six to eight years at minimum, they knew the process had yet to be undertaken, and yet they assured students they would graduated from an APA accredited school," the complaint states.
The school did not apply for accreditation until 2008 and was unsuccessful. Instead of informing students that it had been "invited to withdraw" its application, the school represented that it had received "positive feedback" from the APA, the lawsuit states.
Believing they would graduate from an accredited school, students forked over anywhere $18,864 to $25,965 a year in tuition to Pacifica, plus thousands of dollars of additional fees, the students say.
They claim Pacific was able to reap approximately $150,000 per student in tuition due to their misrepresentations of accreditation.
In 2011, Pacifica called a meeting to inform students that "they did not believe they could achieve APA accreditation for the Ph.D. model and were shifting their efforts to a newly created Psy.D., giving students one week to switch to the Psy.D. if they wished or stay the course in their Ph.D. program that would not be accredited by the APA despite every assertion to the contrary," the complaint states.
Most of the students were many years into their Ph.D. programs and did not have the ability to transfer more than a half semester's worth of units if they wanted to leave Pacifica; therefore, they were effectively trapped in an unaccredited program facing rates significantly higher than other nonaccredited programs in California, the complaint states.
Some students left Pacifica without completing their degrees after finding out that the school was unlikely to be accredited. Many of those who graduated have "worthless" degrees because Pacifica's program does not meet the requirements for many employers and licensing boards due to its lack of APA accreditation, the complaint states.
The students seek compensatory and punitive damages.
They are represented by Eric A. Woosley with Woosley & Porter.
Pacifica did not immediately return a request for comment.
According to Pacifica's website, both the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. in clinical psychology are accredited by the Western Association of School and Colleges.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges is on the U.S. Department of Education's list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this page was posted, Pacific Graduate Institute responded in an email: "The claims against Pacifica Graduate Institute are without merit.
"The untrue assertion is that Pacifica claimed American Psychological Association (APA) accreditation for its clinical psychology program. This assertion is not only false, it is just plain unreasonable. The claim that plaintiffs reasonably relied on promises that accreditation was imminent is equally without merit. Everyone familiar with this arena, including plaintiffs, who are admittedly graduate level professionals, understands that APA is an independent regulatory body whose future actions cannot be predicted.
"There is not one piece of Pacifica literature or digital media that promotes or promises APA accreditation or supports plaintiffs' claims. Furthermore, the APA website publically lists all the accredited institutions, making it impossible to fake an accreditation.
"All of Pacifica Graduate Institute's programs - including the clinical psychology program - are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)."