TORONTO - A northern Ontario college misled students into believing it would prepare them for careers in managing health information and the province "abdicated" its responsibility to ensure those students were getting the education they paid for, Ontario's ombudsman said Tuesday.

After a nearly year-long investigation into Cambrian College's two-year Health Information Management program, Andre Marin concluded that the Sudbury, Ont., school should compensate the students.

The program is not formally recognized by the Canadian Health Information Management Association, the certification body for the profession, and as a result students couldn't write the exams necessary to land jobs in the hospital records sector, Marin found.

"It's a worthless degree because students can't get a job in the field without CHIMA requirements," Marin said.

Although health information is an unregulated health-care field, most workplaces demand certification from the association, he said.

"Cambrian's failure to put students first, and the ministry's misplaced reliance on the college to guard itself, have left many graduates of the program frustrated, disillusioned and in debt," Marin wrote in his report.

The ombudsman's office launched the investigation last September after 13 students from the program complained.

Sara Wright, who has three young children, had her sights set on a high-paying hospital job but only managed to find work as a data entry clerk for $19 an hour, a job she could have landed with a high school diploma, Marin said.

In another example, Marin cited the case of Kristine Landry. The 21-year-old found a placement in a hospital but it didn't involve health records or coding. She now works as a temporary clerk at a credit union.

Sylvia Barnard, president of Cambrian College, said she is very disappointed by the "disrespectful" report's finding.

The program never claimed students would be qualified under the Canadian Health Information Management Association, but the school did tell students it was applying for association certification, she said.

"We followed the CHIMA guidelines, we didn't meet the standards but we followed the guidelines," Barnard said.

The program focused instead on training the students as "generalists" as northern employers tend to be smaller, she said.

"They need people who have a broad set of skills so we built the program in response to our employers," said Barnard.

"We were more concerned that our students had a broad range of skills than worrying about the CHIMA certification."

Eighty-four per cent of students are employed in health care, Barnard said.

"They're working exactly where our documentation said they would be."

About 19 students have been offered compensation to help pay for the certification process. Four students have accepted the college's offer, Barnard added.

The $2,100-a-year program is still operational. As recently as Aug. 5, Cambrian's brochure maintained that the school follows national guidelines, and "graduates will be prepared for careers across Canada in a number of health and community-based settings."

Taking aim at the government, Marin said the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities "abdicated any responsibility to ensure that a college actually delivers a program."

The ministry "opened the purse strings and shelled out the cash without taking any steps to ensure that the college followed through," Marin wrote. "In the end, it was the students and graduates of the program who suffered."

Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy said after a six-step process, the program met the requirements for ministry approval.

"You do not need CHIMA accreditation to enter into the field," he said. "I think the situation here is there was a lot confusion as to what the outcome of taking this program is."

Milloy added that there was also confusion about the relationship between the program and the association.

"I certainly accept that criticism and we've taken steps to make sure that this won't happen again."

Milloy said the ministry issued a policy directive that will ensure students have all the facts about the outcome of a program, and how it would relate to a professional association.

In a settlement offer obtained by the ombudsman's office, the college offered all 2007 and 2008 graduates a $1,625 reimbursement upon completion of the second year of the program at another institution and reimbursement for the cost of writing the CHIMA exam.

Cambrian is also offering 2007 and 2008 grads a one-time $2,000 cash allowance, as long as grads don't use the offer in court as an admission of wrongdoing by the college.

"There's an offer here to provide some hush money on the eve of our report, but I think it's too little too late for a lot of these students," Marin said.

Kelly Abrams, vice-president of education at CHIMA, said 18 Canadian schools are certified by the body, but Cambrian twice failed to meet their requirements.

"They were told that they were not to use anything stating that they met CHIMA requirements and that we would prefer that they clearly stated that they didn't," she said.

Abrams said CHIMA had to turn away Cambrian students who wanted to write the exam and received calls from students and parents who said they were going to take further action.

Marin said he hopes the report will be a wake-up call to the ministry for more oversight.

This report, entitled "Too Cool For School Too," is the second in as many months released by Marin that criticizes how the Ministry of Colleges and Universities regulates college programs.

In July, the ombudsman released a report on Bestech Academy, a private career college which, up until last year, operated campuses in Stoney Creek and St. Catharines, offering courses in gas technician training before closing and leaving students and staff out of pocket.