Online scams like diploma mills pose a multi-pronged danger: they defraud unwitting individuals of money in exchange for worthless degrees, weaken the foundation of higher education, and pose a significant threat to legitimate, online educational institutions. In the last couple of decades the growth in distance learning has skyrocketed. Working adults seeking real college degrees and professional training have plenty of opportunities to study at their own pace, in their own homes, and earn degrees for career advancement or even for personal pleasure.
At the same time distance learning is getting a leg up, online diploma mills are gaining, too. Often posing as brick and mortar colleges and universities, degree mills offer a deeply diluted “study” program—if one at all--in exchange for thousands of dollars and an “authentic” diploma. Consumers shopping for online-degrees-the-easy-way have been tricked into believing their degree-for-no-work is a legitimate one. An unfortunate outcome of the tangled mess is the bad rep legitimate online programs suffer thanks to the unchecked band of bogus and fake knock-offs.
Well-known online universities such as The University of Phoenix have perfected and improved their learning environments over the years. Online degree programs have already fought an uphill battle against the favor of traditional programs. But until recently, traditional education has had the benefit of federal aid and many types of student loans, which had summarily locked out much of the distance-learning realm.
The number of students that hold online degrees is well above the 1 million mark. This offers proof of the viability and demand for flexible programs designed for adult learners, career changers, and those with time constraints.
Demand notwithstanding, studies continue to show that there remains a solid corps of employers whose tastes have not changed with the times: employers will choose applicants with traditional degrees 95 percent of the time. Results go even further to include applicants that have both traditional and online credentials. It seems as though any amount of online learning is still snubbed regardless of how rapidly the demand for online among students is growing.
Part of this discriminatory mindset, some say, is the increasing number of diploma mills. The current tangle of information surrounding them is haphazard at best. The dissemination of such information increases the threat that any and all online programs will become synonymous with the bogus businesses selling degrees in exchange for little work or based on “life experience.” And as part of the charge against the guerrilla-like marketing tactics of legitimate for-profit education, the University of Phoenix coughed up almost $10 million dollars in fines to the Department of Education recently, adding insult to injury.
This comes at a time when legitimate online universities, like U of P, have made some headway in the higher education realm. The federal government has exercised tight control over the distance learning industry since the early 90s in hopes to cut off the blood supply to the growing diploma mill industry. To those ends schools eligible for federal aid were unable to offer more than 50 percent of their courses online. This has changed. Schools are no longer required to adhere to the rule.
But did this 50 Percent Rule actually stem the rise of diploma mills? Ironically, diploma mills have nothing to do with federal aid. Chances are, the law only curtailed the growth of legitimate distance learning, for better or for worse, but most likely with no effect on diploma mills.
Traditional colleges and universities are now on board with online studies. More and more expand their curriculum to appeal to a broader student population by providing distance learning alternatives. Hopefully as traditional higher education embraces online, the segregation of all of online learning will cease and the wheat will finally be separated from the chaff.