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How to Assess the Quality and Authority of Online Educational Sources

Is This Degree Real or Fake? Do the Right Research

Diploma mills and fake degrees continue to grow as a business thanks to a mix of incentives. This article is specifically designed for the consumer unclear on the differences between a real online degree program and a fake. Don’t be duped into believing that an online degree based on life experience is as valid as any other college degree. Empty marketing promises guarantee that a quick degree will land the next promotion or win the raise. But will it?

How do degree mills take advantage of so many people? Armed with very clever marketing tricks and the illusion of a viable business, it’s not difficult to see how thieves could make off with millions of dollars. The truth is diploma mills not only take consumers, they bamboozle even lawmakers and politicians. They are slippery and elusive and the laws regulating their businesses are flimsy to non-existent.

Common Sense First

What most people fail to follow is their instinct. Culturally, we are conditioned to do the external research, check the facts, and make the list of pros and cons. We are less advised to let our instincts prevail. Really…do you believe a Bachelor’s degree sold to you based on the last five years of your work experience is as valid as a four-year term of study through a reputable online university? Of course it sounds good. And fraudulent universities make a very influential sales pitch; they puff you up and lead you to believe you’ve earned it. As hard as you may have worked to get where you are professionally, a real college degree comes with a significant amount of academic hard work over and above what you’ve done professionally.

Check the Requirements for a Real College Degree

Online or not, a real college degree takes a term of time. Unless you are a genius-level student, a Bachelor’s degree will involve up to four years, a Master’s degree close to two and a Ph.D. may take several years plus a lengthy dissertation. Colleges lay out degree requirements in credit hours, which are weighted on courses and associated course work. And in most cases, students must also complete a list of required courses quite possibly unrelated to their major.

Know the Credentials of a Real Online University

The Department of Education approves seven regional accrediting agencies that oversee the business of distance learning programs. Not all online programs are accredited, but it’s important to understand what credentials an accrediting body looks for when evaluating an educational institution. A host of institutional and educational factors are weighed, including:

Within these larger concepts lie concrete measurements such as lists of courses, degree requirements, admissions policies and standards, institutional government, support services, and faculty, educational, and institutional resources.

Radford University vs. Randford University: A Comparison of Real and Bogus Universities

Radford University located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia is an accredited public university that is well ranked in the U.S. News and World Report Guide to America’s Best Colleges. Radford’s name is well known enough that its alter-ego Randford University—an alleged diploma mill, also located in Virginia—chose to closely emulate the name, an intentional and common tactic among degree mills. This is where the similarity ends.

Radford’s home page—our real-life example—proves the existence of a 3-dimensional university: links to the university radio station, campus map, academic and event calendars, a full A-Z site index, the university news clippings, and comprehensive links to academic catalogs, departments and advisors. All in all these are the ingredients that serve to flesh out a real collegiate institution. Elements that may support authenticity:

Elements that can be falsified or misleading:

In contrast, Randford’s website—our bogus degree mill example—provides a one-stop shop for “Life Experience” degrees. Pay attention to the content on the home page. A tip off should be the text that reads: “Our degrees are based on a combination of educational studies, training, life experience, or other skills you have learned. This can convert into a nationally-recognized degree with little or no additional training.” Empty promises such as this should be avoided at all costs. This is a major indication of low quality and possible fraudulent activity. Randford’s “Tuition Explained” could serve as a page from a handbook on diploma mills; further tip-offs to fake degrees and credentials:

Products and services such as these would not appear on an authoritative online educational website such as University of Phoenix or Kaplan University, both very reputable distance learning institutions.

Use the Too Good to Be True Rule

Does the degree program sound too good to be true? This is your gut instinct talking. Degrees that are guaranteed within months and with little course work are bogus.

Avoid Aggressive Marketing

Online universities at large have, up until recently, used aggressive marketing tactics to reach their audience. But in an effort to curb the guerrilla marketing tactics of diploma mills, accredited universities suffer. Not long ago the Department of Education dished out a hefty fine to the University of Phoenix in response to its aggressive marketing tactics and recruitment of under-qualified students.

While U of P does not have to resort to the heavy-handed tactics it once did, diploma mills and fake degree businesses will likely not let up. Avoid too good to be true emails and marketing jargon such as:

Evaluate Accreditation

Unfortunately even the label of “accredited” is not authoritative. In the previous article, Online Accredited Degree Programs,” we discussed the growing business of accreditation mills. There are hundreds of phony or unrecognized accreditation agencies worldwide. Just because a website says it’s accredited, you must still do the research necessary to find out if it’s one of the seven regional distance learning accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education.

LaCrosse University—easily confused with very reputable University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse—began operations in Louisiana. When the state refused to allow it to operate within state borders, the “institution” moved to Mississippi where it continues to promise degrees based on life experience AND under the auspices of an accredited school. Why did LaCrosse move to Mississippi? According to the ODA, Mississippi has “the worst college oversight law in the U.S.” Regardless of bad press, LaCrosse maintains its accreditation through the Association of Distance Learning Programs (ADLP) and sells degrees not recognized in many states. As far as the authority of its accreditation, the ADLP is not recognized by the Department of Education. This is all you need to know.

Reliable Sources

The information necessary to debunk the business of diploma mills is pretty far-flung. Here are some of the primary resources for the right information:

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