Online degrees generally get a bad rep: Employers may not trust a certificate from a school they've never heard of, the accreditation process frequently is viewed with skepticism, and most online degree programs are pretty new considering their more established, and prestigious, "bricks and mortar" competitors.
So just why are so many people doing them?
And amid a dramatic increase in the number of Americans choosing to study for an online or distance-learning degree in a down economy, what are the common online degree scams and shams -- referred to by one expert as a "national epidemic" -- online students should take extra care to avoid?
David Clinefelter, Ph.D., the Provost of Kaplan University, one of the nation's biggest fully accredited online learning institutions says his school has grown from 34 online students in 2001 to about 48,000 online and on-ground students in 2008 and offers online learners a choice of associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees in more than 100 academic programs.
He says: "The curriculum of an online degree is often similar to what you would find at a brick-and-mortar program. However, online students do not have to commute to campus for class at a designated time; they can log into classes at a time and location that is convenient for them."
Baby boomers and seniors increasingly are moving into new media as they consider taking a job in their retirement, and gains in web-based technology including live video streaming and group conferencing also have made online learning more effective for and attractive to younger students. Clinefelter adds: " With online education, students also have the opportunity to engage regularly with students from across the country and around the world."
Gary Almond, the vice-president of the Better Business Bureau in Los Angeles says that "with a growing rate of unemployment, certainly there are more people trying to improve their standing with an online degree."
Unfortunately, Almond adds, and separate from accredited programs like Kaplan, "some of these less then scrupulous online classes try to separate people from their money, claiming that by doing their online classes they can get a paper degree that will bring them a big-money job, to make it look like they're an authority. It's a problem."
Almond breaks down the problem into a couple of "common areas of confusion": so-called diploma mills, which offer a certificate for a cash sum and little or no work from an applicant; and schools that claim accreditation but are not recognized by a prospective employer or further education institution.
Diploma mills widely have been decried by employers and universities for their dishonest and in many cases illegal behavior. Simply put, these schemes will provide a respectable-looking certificate from an often fictional institution for a hefty price tag, and often operate out of states that have loose penalties for forgery or embellishment. One such school famously was busted for awarding a degree to a cat belonging to a federal investigator, and has since closed. Consumer groups including the Better Business Bureau warn of the danger of a false law or medical degree. Some estimate the fraudulent industry is worth more than $500 million annually.
Often, though, it's usually a matter of choice for anyone wanting one of these degrees, Almond says: Nobody, after all, expects a degree for a couple of hours' work to be legitimate.
A bigger problem, Almond says, is the accreditation process that can leave a graduate with a degree that isn't recognized by employers or universities -- and thousands of dollars out of pocket. "These claim to provide some education but their depth and authority haven't been examined. They cloak themselves by using designations that they don't have, a number of accreditation agencies on the Internet don't hold water. If someone claims to have accreditation, they should check it out."
Vicky Phillips, founder of geteducated.com, one of the web's most visited resources on online degrees, says the online college accreditation controversy largely stems from there being two distinct accreditation bodies: Regional accreditation agencies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which are recognized by almost all colleges and employers; and, separately, a system of national accreditation agencies that operates largely at state level nationwide. Many diploma mills and some online institutions are accredited at this level only.
The Secretary of Education, through the U.S. Department of Education, recognizes select accrediting agencies, primarily the regional accrediting agencies. Accreditation by a recognized agency is required to participate in federal student aid programs. Any accrediting agency that meets federal criteria for recognition is placed on the Department of Education's List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's (CHEA) List of Participating and Recognized Organizations.
Phillips adds: "Students earn a two-year degree then want to transfer to four, and the regionally accredited school won't accept the qualification. It generates lots of complaints. Regional is the highest form of accreditation."
She advises prospective students to check our her site and others like it on the Web where students can find accurate information on accreditation levels on online schools nationwide. She says diploma mills "simply award fraudulent degrees," and that her site also tracks such schemes.
Almond advises online students to "try to attend a college whose name brand is known in the geographic area you're going to work in, because the more familiar employers are with the name brand, the more they trust it."
Clinefelter advises before pursuing a degree or certificate from any college or university, a student "should make sure the institution is accredited by an accrediting body approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation, which could be regional or national, provides an indication of the school's quality. Kaplan University - and most traditional four-year universities - are regionally accredited."
He says a student should make sure the courses and curriculum offered in a particular program will prepare them for the job or promotion they are seeking, and also should choose an online program that offers student support services in case they have academic or technical problems. Every Kaplan University student, he says, is assigned an academic advisor and full-time online tech support. Lastly, he says: "The common misperception is that online is easy, but many students say it is actually more challenging because they must remain engaged and self-disciplined to stay on task."
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