Several news stories have us thinking about the future of online education and how consumers may be impacted.
First, there are the ongoing developments in a Spokane-based diploma/degree mill scam that led to a federal indictment of eight Eastern Washington residents. The Washington Attorney General’s Office opened that investigation and went on to take a leading role in the federal task force that completed the case.
Second, recent reports say more college students are opting to take courses online to cut the days they have to commute to class. High gas prices are to blame.
For aspiring students, there are obviously many options to pursue a degree from the comfort of your living room or local hotspot-equipped cafe. But with both legitimate colleges and diploma mills advertising heavily online, how is the average Joe or Jill to know which courses are worthwhile?
Opt for the fake degree and the consequences can be serious. In Washington, it’s illegal to knowingly grant a fake degree or diploma or use one to seek a job or promotion. No doubt some folks who buy their credentials from diploma mills know the degrees are a sham. Others may just be naïve.
A good first step is to check if a school is accredited by a legitimate organization by searching the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. (There are a few legitimate institutions that have not pursued accreditation.)
The Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board maintains a list of colleges and universities that operate legally in our state. The college may be a diploma mill if the name doesn’t show up.
The board also provides a list of 10 warning signs to help you recognize a diploma mill. A few red flags:
- You can earn degrees in significantly less time than at a traditional college or university.
- The college places a heavy emphasis on offering college credits for life experience.
- The college charges tuition by the degree, or offers discounts if you enroll in multiple degree programs. (Traditional colleges generally charge by the credit hour, course, or semester, although some vocational schools charge tuition per program.) Although it is true that online colleges normally offer lower tuition, they aren’t cheap, either.
- The college’s address is a post office box or suite number.
Employers, too, need to take the time to verify whether applicant credentials are real. The FTC offers these tips, which include taking time to call the school’s registrar. If you aren’t familiar with a school, you need to dig further since some diploma mills offer a “verification service” that will send a phony transcript to a prospective boss.
Will the negative aura surrounding diploma mills cast a shadow on all distance-learning programs? Probably not, says an instructor for the University of Phoenix, in this interview.
But even if you know a school is legit, it can be tough to assess the value of one degree program over another. A Google search of “online vs traditional degrees” produced nearly 13 million hits and a plethora of opinions.
Vault, a publisher of career information, recently surveyed 172 employers about their likelihood of hiring a candidate with an online degree. “While 83 percent of employers and hiring managers say that online degrees are more acceptable than they were five years ago, it seems there is still a ways to go before employers fully embrace them,” the company said.
From a consumer protection perspective, the issue of whether to obtain a degree online is much like any other: It’s a “buyer beware” market and, just like school, you need to do your homework.
- Kristin Alexander