Accreditation of higher education institutions has taken on a more important meaning. The rise of under-qualified and fly-by-night universities, more candidly known as diploma mills, has made earning a degree of any kind as simple as writing a check. Unfortunately the term “accredited” is largely overlooked, misunderstood wherever it’s used, and now the victim of its own type of scam.
Accreditation, whether for traditional, online or vocational programs, is assumed by a group of accrediting agencies sanctioned through the Department of Education. These agencies are regional and national. In the past accreditation of brick and mortar colleges has been straightforward. Traditional colleges have measurable attributes:
Move a degree program to the online realm and measurement of concrete details is a bit more elusive. The Internet makes it possible to create the illusion of a campus and a program of study when in fact one may not even exist. Such is the business of many diploma mills.
In the article, “A Threat to Legal, Online Programs” we explore the legal reasons why diploma mills threaten the legitimacy of online education. Accredited or not, legal and reputable online university degrees are summarily dismissed by a majority of employers because the potential to create an illusion and a fraud is so much easier. Even the growing segment of traditional colleges and universities that are making large chunks of their coursework deliverable through online environments are suspect, simply because of the Internet medium.
Reputable online universities have fought hard to be taken seriously in the arena with traditional colleges. Only in the last decade has there been a drastic change in student willingness to trust the distance learning paradigm. For most students, the online environment enables them to conduct their lives—careers and family—in as uninterrupted a capacity as is possible.
Diploma mills have led some consumers to believe that earning an online degree may be as easy as accounting for past work experience, writing a long essay, or taking a short test. The “life experience” degree that some fraudulent universities sell as sound and viable has led consumers astray as far as the mission of an online degree is really concerned.
Randford University in Virginia—not to be confused with reputable and well-known Radford University, also in Virginia—boasts degrees conferred for Life Experience. Their admissions process? Show you’ve worked as a computer network administrator for the last five years, choose the degree level you’d like and within 48 hours you’ll receive a response that includes your “tuition” cost and any further free online work you may need to do for the degree that the college claims you’ve earned. The truth is the “tuition” fee is really the ridiculous cost you pay for a completely useless diploma. The Department of Education warns students to steer clear of businesses boasting this type of “education.”
As much as it might puff you up to think your professional experience makes you eligible for a Bachelor’s, Master’s or even a Ph.D. the fact is that out in the real world it’s nothing more than fake, phony, and bogus. AND it’s undermining the veracity of real online college degrees.
Regional and national accrediting agencies that have been responsible for the ongoing regulation of traditional colleges and universities also regulate the operations of authentic online institutions. For example, the Higher Learning Commission, or the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, is one of seven regional boards—sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education—to oversee the business of online or distance learning institutions and programs. HLC’s criteria by which they measure a school or program’s quality includes:
The national and regional lists of accrediting agencies can be found via a number of sources. For the sake of accuracy, students should check the U.S. Department of Education’s list of approved distance learning accreditation agencies.
As if diploma mills did not confound the higher educational system enough, but one of the more recent developments is the rise in accreditation mills. The term “accredited” is no longer an indication of real quality. Not only must students and consumers beware unaccredited universities, they must also beware phony accreditation agencies. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintains a current list of accreditors and the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization publishes a list of “unapproved ‘accreditors’” that “have come to ODA’s attention.”
Students interested in online degrees must realize the risks in seeking degrees from unaccredited institutions. All may not be diploma mills, but some states are enacting laws that require you to disclose when a degree has been earned through a non-accredited university. Already, employers are wont to hire candidates with online degrees; this is likely to offer more resistance.
Online information of all kinds must be subject to strict review. We’ve already seen how easy it is at this stage in the fake degree game to fool many consumers and even employers. Inconsistencies in reliable information pose a problem, too. Many state educational offices provide sketchy information on questionable colleges and universities. This is an indicator of how quickly the business of fraudulent degrees morphs. In the article, “How to Assess the Quality and Authority of Online Educational Sources,” we explore some of the confusing nuances of the online realm as well as offer some tips and tricks designed to help you separate potentially bogus degree mills from authentic and reliable online university programs.