On December 18th, over on the IT World website, Dan Tynan wrote an interesting piece entitled, "Online degrees with the greatest of sleaze," in which he takes aim at "[w]ho's really behind those infographic-spewing lead generation sites;" and concludes that it's "a massive multi-billion-dollar education industry funded largely by taxpayers."
And though he's mostly right, both he and some commenters who posted beneath his story got wrong some things about higher education, generally, and the "online" modality of distance learning, specifically.
So I posted the following as a comment beneath his story; but, along the way, I began to realize that what I wrote there contains at least the essence of a large article for degree-seekers I've been wanting to write, around here. So I figured, what the heck, I'll just post it, here, too, and get things started. I'll improve on it in a better and more comprehensive piece later.
What's below is stuff that every single person who's out there looking at colleges and who's seeking a degree -- especially via the "online' distance learning modality -- should absolutely know! No one should sign-up for an online college education without making certain that s/he's crystal clear about the following. And so, then, the following is sort of a how-to for degree-seekers.
Remember, so that you won't be confused by any mentions of same, below, that the following is in response to this article. That said, the following stands pretty well on its own, too.
In response to the article:
Online degrees with the greatest of sleaze
by Gregg L. DesElms
Distance learning -- of which "online" is but one modality -- is one of my consulting firms's areas of expertise... along with accreditation, and fighting degree/diploma mills. With that as my background, I'd like to make sure that at least a thing or two about all this is clear, here.
"Online" doesn't automatically mean "bad"
There's nothing inherently negative about the "online" modality of distance learning, nor about distance learning, itself. Persons who don't know any better decry "online" schools, and declare that they're all degree or diploma mills (and there is a difference, by the way, which I'll cover in a moment); but it's an "all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs" sort of thing: All degree/diploma mills are online, but not all online schools are degree/diploma mills. Degree/diploma mills are all online, simply, because it's easier to build an impressive-looking, and impressively deceptive, fake school website than it is to build an impressive fake school physical campus in the real world. So, then, all degree/diploam mills operate entirely in cyberspace. Sadly, that fact has given the ignorant and undiscerning the wrong-headed notion that if a school's online, then it's a degree/diploma mill. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mills have simply given legitimate online schools a bad name... at least in the minds of, again, the ignorant and undiscerning. But real schools like Harvard and Yale, now, offer online coursework... even entire degrees, entirely online. And so the mere fact that something is online does not mean it's lacking credibility. Again: Thumbs and fingers. The ignorant and undiscerning were obviously absent on the days when categorization was covered in elementary school.
Study, after study, after study now shows that distance learners (at real, and not fake degree/diploma mill schools) are more self-disciplined, take studying more seriously, and tend to do generally better than their in-classroom counterparts. If distance learning weren't effective, then, again, the best schools on the planet -- including, again, Harvard and Yale -- would not offer both coursework and entire degrees entirely via distance learning... more specifically, of the online type. Those, here, who think that "online" learning is, in an of itself, either a problem or in any way inherently substandard should bother to actually research it and learn a thing or two about it. See, for example...
...among many others to which I could refer the reader.
The trick is to ensure that the online (or whatever other kind of) education about which one is talking, in conversations like this, is ACCREDITED by an agency approved by the US Department of Education (USDE), and/or the USDE-sanctioned Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). As long as the school or its program(s) is(are) so accredited, then it matters not whether the learning modality is in the classroom or online. Either way, it's exactly the same content; and today's technology ensures that it's just as effective, in both cases.
Degree and diploma mills
The terms "degree mill" and/or "diploma mill" are often misused... as I'm seeing even here, on this web page. A school that's really and truly accredited by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency, no matter how bad is the school, cannot possibly be either a degree or diploma mill. Period.
Accreditation by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency (and there really is no other kind of accreditation; if the agency isn't either or both of USDE- and/or CHEA-approved, then it isn't really an educational accreditor) is the single best ensurer that a given school -- be it online or in the real, brick-and-mortar world -- could not possibly be a degree/diploma mill.
A degree mill is a fake school that nevertheless claims it's a real and legitimate school -- pretty much always via the online learning modality -- which offers "degrees" and other educational credentials essentially for a fee. The most successful and best at fooling people don't just sell the degree, outright. Instead, they have the "student" fill-out an application, submit transcripts of prior college work, submit a resume, and sometimes even write a bio which hits on their educational, work and life experience; and then the fake school writes back and tells them that if they'll just take a few of its courses, and maybe write a paper, then that, plus the prior education, and work, and life experience can all be combined to count as college credit; and then, voila!, for an additional flat fee of however many hundred or sometimes even thousand dollars, the duped "student" can have a "degree"... and usually a fake transcript, too. Said degree and transcript aren't worth the paper on which they're written, of course, but that's both what a degree mill offers, and how it offers it. Degree mills, then, pretend to be real schools, but aren't; yet they put up a good show in the hopes of fooling degree seekers who don't know any better.
A diploma mill is little more than a printing shop... not terribly different from a local print shop in a stip mall near any of our homes... a "quick print" sort of place, that normally does letterhead and business cards and invitations and brochures and whatnot. All a diploma mill does, then, is print fake diplomas... er... well... and fake transcripts, too. Some of them print credible-looking fake school fake diplomas; and some of them print those, plus credible-looking real school fake diplomas... so that, in the case of the latter, the person who purchases one may claim that s/he went to some school that actually exists, even though s/he never did. Some diploma mills really do a good job, too... and their work looks as good as a real school's real diploma. Their transcripts are even printed on the same kind of safety paper as real schools use for real transcripts. It's actually quite impressive, all things considered.
No either diploma or degree mill, though, is ever accredited by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency. Many of them claim fake accreditation, though... usually by completely made-up accreditors for which they build impressive-looking websites, and sometimes even name in a manner that's confusingly similar to the name of a real and legitimate USDE- and/or CHEA-approved accreditor; again, to fool the degree-seeker who doesn't know any better. There are also a few completely bogus "accreditors" out there which claim to be accreditors, but aren't USDE- and/or CHEA-approved; and which will take a small and unaccredited -- but sometimes attempting to be real and legitimate; and sometimes "startup" -- school's money to make the foolish school owner think it's accredited; and, of course, sometimes (most of the time, in fact) the foolish school owner actually realizes that the accreditor is bogus, but so desperately needs to be able to say to degree-seekers that it's accredited that the school owner stupidly pays the fee to the bogus accreditor and then hopes for the best.
It is accreditation by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency which ensures that the accredited school could not possibly be either a degree or diploma mill. That said, not all schools that are unaccredited are mills. Any brand new school, for example, must be in business for a certain period of time, and must graduate a certain number of students, before it may finally apply to be accredited. Said schools usually conform to accreditation standards from the outset so that when they're finally ready to apply, they don't have all that much work to do, or that many things to change or improve. Such new schools, though unaccredited for the aforementioned minimum years of initial operation, are obviously going to be credible and legitimate, even though unaccredited. So, obviously, not all unaccredited schools are mills. However, an unaccredited school that doesn't go ahead and apply for accreditation, once it has been in business long enough, and has had enough graduates, does begin to become suspect, eventually. Everyone in academia knows that a school can't really be all that successful unless it's accredited... that is, unless the school is so specialist, and has sufficient other imprimatur that it doesn't really need to be accredited. The law schools in California that are approved by the California Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners (which allows its graduates to sit for the Bar exam, even though the schools aren't accredited by the American Bar Association, which is a USDE- and CHEA-approved accreditor) are examples of such unaccredited schools which are so specialist, and which have alternative imprimatur, such that they don't really need to be accredited by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency in order to be successful... and credible and legitimate, too.
About for-profit colleges... even accredited ones
It is very important to understand that accreditation, is a minimal, and not an optimal standard. Accreditation is, rather, a MINIMUM standard BELOW which no school may fall and still remain accredited. Accreditation, then, does not speak to how GOOD a school can possibly be; but, rather, how BAD it cannot possibly be allowed to be. The salient explanatory example, there, is that one's local community college has the exact same kind of "regional" USDE- and CHEA-approved accreditation as does both Harvard and Yale; yet no one in his/her right mind would ever make the insensible argument that anyone's local community college is on-par with either Harvard or Yale... or likely even the community college's state's public four-year colleges or universities (which also, incidentally, have the exact same kind of accreditation).
This point is important when it comes to understanding how a regionally-accredited for-profit school like University of Phoenix (UOP) could nevertheless be so bad. And by "bad," I don't merely mean academically bad, as I'll explain in a moment. By "bad," I also mean the kind of bad which is the overarching point of all this, here: The problem of for-profit schools and their abominable business practices; and how degree-seekers are harmed by it. For an eye-opening understanding of what that's all about, watch...
College, Inc | Frontline | WGBH Boston
...which documents, about as well as has anyone, how the for-profit model of higher education, such as UOP and others practice, summarily rips-off students and plunges them into unspeakable debt... among other problems.
More than all that, though, such as UOP also quite often deliver that absolutely minimum quality education that they can get away with and still remain regionally accredited. I've seen this, first hand, with UOP specifically, as well as others, in my own work. For example, in my ministry of helping the homeless, disabled vets, the indigent elderly, the prostituted, recent parolees, and others similarly in need, I had, as a client, a registered nurse whose alcoholism had made her homeless. Her two DUIs, for which she was wanted when I met her and took her on as a client, had caused the state nursing board to want to revoke her nursing license... yet again (it had happened to her before).
Once I got her through detox, and into a sober living home, we began working on her legal and licensing issues. I got her through the court system, and kept her out of jail; but the state nursing board still wanted her license. Yet she wanted to complete her RN-to-BSN degree program, for which one must have a nursing license. I negotiated with the nursing board that as long as she didn't practice other than as part of the RN-to-BSN program, she could keep her license for as long as she was in that program; and then immediately after her graduation whe would orderly surrender her license for a minimum two years. As an aside, I subsequently learned that I was the only person to have ever successfully negotiated such a thing, so I was pretty proud. Sadly, it ended-up being moot, as I'll explain momentarily.
My client had, before before she went homeless, been enrolled in a distance learning RN-to-BSN degree program at UOP (from which she had, of course, dropped-out during her homelessness). However, knowing the bad things that I knew about UOP, combined with that she still owned UOP money and so wouldn't have been allowed to continue there until she got caught-up, I knew that UOP was no longer an option for her. So I steered her onto what I knew to be a far better distance learning RN-to-BSN program at one of the regionally-accredited California State University (CSU) system schools. Because of the money issue with UOP, none of her courses there could be transferred into the CSU program, so she simply started all over again (fortunately, she hadn't really taken all that many courses from UOP, so it wasn't really going to be that big a deal for her).
I got her into a special state program which allowed her to get into a 90-day alcohol treament program, at no cost to her; then I got her a grant from the county, plus more than a year of unemployment. Then, after that, I got her employment at an LVN/LPN nursing school teaching gross anatomy; during which I got her a job as the live-in night manager at a bed and breakfast (B&B). So her paying for school, after a fashion, became a non-problem. That plus what I had negotiated with the state nursing board put her in a good position to resume school... that is, as long as she could remain sober (yes, that's foreshadowing).
The fact that she had to start over again at CSU is useful for our purposes, here, because it uniquely allowed her to take a few of the exact same courses from CSU that she had already taken from UOP. And, boy, oh, boy, were my eyes ever opened to UOP's comparatively low academic quality by that! I had had others attest to me that UOP's coursework was really only up to the bare minimum quality necessary for it to be regionally accredited. There have also been, over the years, many stories about fraud and academic lack of integrity at UOP... such that more than one HR manager had told me, in my travels, that it was all they could to do not just throw into the trash any resume that had UOP on it. One HR manager, in fact, admitted, flat-out, to that being her normal practice. Though I don't think that's fair -- and I told her so -- I at least understood what she meant, and why she did it. UOP's reputation precedes it. Many call it a degree mill, which, based on my definition of that, herein, is both inaccurate, and also a misuse of that term. But the sentiment is nevertheless understood. UOP isn't a very good school, even among the for-profits...
...and comparing the academic rigor of the RN-to-BSN courses that my client took from UOP, with the very same ones she took from CSU, made the point most convincingly. There was an almost night-and-day difference. The CSU courses were almost on an order of magnitude more academically rigorous... and therefore more inherently fostering of real understanding. The UOP courses, on the other hand, were clearly taught to the exams, and were about rote remembering, but not necessarily real understanding. The difference, seriously, was palpable. It was a real eye-opener.
The for-profit school problem is huge. First, they cost too much, and they plunge students into almost unrecoverable lifetime debt... debt, because it's bona fide "student loan" debt, which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy... ever. Second, they recruit in unethical ways which do not sufficiently screen unworthy degree-seekers whom they know, from the outset, will wash out... leaving them, too, with not only debt which cannot ever be discharged in bankruptcy, but no degree, either. Third, many of them, like UOP, offer academically nearly sub-standard coursework of the quality which is the intentionally bare minimum needed to be regionally accredited. Fourth, they treat their students like cattle, processing through their systems as many as possible, and giving them only the minimum support needed to, again, be and remain regionally accredited. And the list goes on and on. Again, watch the earlier-herein-linked-to PBS/Frontline/WGBH series, "College, Inc."
Sadly, my nursing client failed in her bid for recovery. During my two years of work with her, she fell off the wagon (started drinking again) three times that I know of, and one witness swears she kept three others from me. The final straw was her sneaking into the basement of the B&B at night and carrying entire cases of wine up into her room/apartment and drinkiner herself into oblivion... eventually to the point where she could not do her job anymore, which is when her employer discovered her theft and drinking problem, and fired her. After a week in an intensive detox program, I got her into a new homeless shelter in another county (the ones in her county had all given-up on her and told her to never return); and once she was settled-in, I terminated our professional relationship. I've since heard from law enforcement in that county that she's been arrested for public intoxication and resisting at least twice in the ensuing years. I honestly don't know if she's even alive anymore; at her age, and at the rate she was going, her early death seemed likely. It's truly tragic. But now I digress. Sorry.
Most important of all: Make sure it's accredited
The two most salient points, here, are that:
- for-profit schools, and their both deceptive practices and usually sub-standard academic rigor, are the biggest problem. Not all for-profit schools, mind you... but most; and,
- the "online" modality of distance learning -- and distance learning, itself -- is just as credible and effective as the in-classroom modality, at least as long as the online school is accredited by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency; and that "online" is not synonymous with "degree mill" or "diploma mill."
The importance of ensuring that any educational program one enters -- be it online or in-the-clasroom -- is accredited by a USDE- and/or CHEA-approved agency cannot be over-stated, either. Granted, there are legitimate and credible unaccredited schools; and if one's life's goals may be achieved by graduating from one of them, then, fine. However, unaccredited schools should be avoided if possible. First, course credits from unaccredited schools are nearly never transferable into accredited ones; and finished degrees from unaccredited schools are nearly never acceptable by accredited one as requisite for entry into higher-level degree programs. Second, most both public (government) and private employers will not accept unaccredited degrees as educational qualification for jobs which require degrees; and, third, nearly no state professional licensing board (accounting, nursing, psychology, etc.) will accept unaccredited degrees as education adequate for acquisition of a state-issued professional license. There are exceptions, however, to that last one, and most of them are found in California. One of them is the earlier-mentioned law schools; and another is that California has a few unaccredited phychology schools which are nevertheless approved by the state board that issues "Marriage and Family Therapy" (MFT), and "Licensed Clinical Social Worker" (LCSW), and even psycholgist licenses.
So, then, again, not all unaccredited schools are bad; and if one of them will help a person to achieve his/her life goals, then, fine. But an increasing number of states -- beginning with Oregon, several years ago -- are making it actually illegal (in some cases, criminally so) to proffer an unaccredited degree in their states on such as resumes, job applications, business cards, letterhead, articles, advertisements, websites, public presentations and/or speaking engagements, etc. So, then, since one never knows where one will end-up living in one's life, right there is yet another reason to just never mess with unaccredited schools... at last not unless there's such a compelling reason to so do that all other downsides become comparatively unimportant. Or so, at least, it is my advice.
When considering a school or an educational program, always, always, always take a few seconds -- it quite literally takes no more than that -- to look-up said school or program in both of the USDE and CHEA online databases:
- The USDE database - http://ope.ed.gov/accreditatio...
- The CHEA database - http://www.chea.org/search
If the school and/or program is not listed in at least one of them, then it is not accredited, no matter what the school claims. Never believe the school. Always look it up. Always! And if it's not found in one database, do look it up in the other because while most schools and programs are accredited by agencies approved by both USDE and CHEA, there are a tiny handful of schools and/or programs accredited by agencies approved by one, but not the other. So it's actually possible for a school and/or program to not be in one database, but to be in the other; and so, then, it's still considered "accredited," by my definition, here. As long as the schhool and/or program is in at least ONE of those two USDE and CHEA databases, then said school and/or program is considered "accredited." Stay away from any school and/or program that's NOT in at least ONE of those two databases!
The exception would be a school that has been so recently accredited that the maintainers of the USDE and/or CHEA databases have not yet had time to enter it. Such a situation is rare, but technically possible. In such case, though, all you have to do is this:
First, look-up the school's alleged accreditor on both the USDE and CHEA websites, at...
- USDE-approved accreditors - http://ope.ed.gov/accreditatio...
- CHEA-approved accreditors - http://chea.org/Directories/in...
...and determine the accreditor's contact information. Remember that fake schools create their own fake accreditors and even give them names which sound very much like the names of real accreditors. Plus, the sometimes claim that a real accreditor has accredited them, when they have not. So always, first, figure out what accreditor the school is claiming has accredited them, and then look-up said accreditor on the USDE and CHEA websites and obtain its true contact information. Never rely on what the school claims is its accreditor's contact information. If the accreditor's not even listed, then the school's obviously lying to you, and so, game over. If the accreditor is listed, then;
Second, contact the accreditor, directly, using the contact information you've obtained. Ask the accreditor, simply, if such-and-such school is one of its accredited schools; and if it was accredited so recently that that's the reason it's not yet in either the USDE and/or CHEA databases. Actually, if the school was accredited THAT recently, then there's likely an action document or press release on the accreditor's website which shows that it just recently accredited the school. The accreditor also likely has a lookup or listing on its accredited schools, and so it may just be as simple as finding the school in question there. Even if the CHEA or USDE databases don't yet show a newly accredited school in its databases, the accreditor's database is likely somewhat more up-to-date.
And, actually, double-checking on a school directly with its accreditor, even if said school shows-up in the USDE and/or CHEA databses, can be a good idea, in any case, because sometimes schools screw-up and get put on probation by their accreditors; or even have their accreditations revoked. The accreditor's website would be the first place where such things would be posted. Neither the USDE nor the CHEA databases, in fact, reflect such things as impending suspensions or revocations; but the actual accreditor's website would. So, in addition to looking-up the school in the USDE and/or CHEA databases, the tenets of appropriate due diligence would dictate that a quick additional check of the accreditor's website (or calling or emailing the accreditor) to ensure that nothing bad is about to happen to the school's accreditation, and also that the school has never been cited for anything bad, is probably a wise move, too.
Hope that helps!
Gregg L. DesElms
Napa, California USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com