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Distance learning programs should be checked for accreditation

Online college degree programs warrant thorough investigation

Looking for a virtual university to fulfill your dreams of the perfect educational credentials to launch you into a better paying job?

Advertisements for degrees that can be earned without ever attending a class or leaving the comfort of your home abound. The advertisements are particularly common on e-mail, but can also be found in legitimate news magazines such as Time, Newsweek and USA Today.

But, like the advertisements that promise thousands of dollars per week for stuffing envelopes, all too often the “virtual” college degrees are a scam.

“Distance learning is a booming field: More and more schools are making it possible for people to get the degree they want or need without ever setting foot on a college campus,” says John Bear, Ph.D., author of the long-time best-selling “Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees

Nontraditionally.” “It can also be a baffling field, fraught with misinformation, false expectations, complexities such as accreditation, and outright dangers such as diploma mills.”

Bear has a Web site (www.degree.net) that is a guide to virtual universities, many of which are bogus.

“While a few are genuine start-ups or online ventures, the great majority range from merely dreadful to out-and-out diploma mill — fake schools that will sell people any degree they want at prices from $3,000 to $5,000,” Bear said. “It is not uncommon for a large fake school to ‘award’ as many as 500 Ph.D.’s every month The aggregate income of the bad guys is easily in excess of $200 million a year. Data show that a single phony school can earn between $10 million and $20 million annually.”

Waste of tuition money

Bear says fake schools are a serious economic force in America, hitting legitimate schools in their pocketbooks by taking away tuition money. He says that is unfortunate because a lot of the tuition money is being spent by people who really want and need legitimate degrees.

Pam Smith, assistant commissioner of public affairs and development, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, agrees that phony Internet degrees are a problem.

“Anytime, a person takes a course or pursues a degree, it is essential that one knows that the course and degree are part of a regionally-accredited program,” Smith said. “Many people have been disappointed after paying substantial amounts for courses to find out that employers had no interest in hiring the person because their program was not accredited. This is a major waste of resources.”

Smith said it is important to check a university’s accreditation. Mississippi’s eight universities are accredited by the Southern Association of Regional Colleges and Universities, which provides an industry standard that adds credibility to the programs.

Program accreditation a safeguard

“In addition, within the universities, many of the various majors have standards for the programs, and consequently, undergo accreditation by program as well,” Smith said. “The education programs, for example, have accreditation programs that require visits and studies regularly. All of the universities work toward attaining and maintaining accreditation by appropriate bodies.”

IHL isn’t opposed to Internet programs, and recognizes there are advantages to distance learning such as making education opportunities more accessible. Students who work full time and have families, for example, can benefit from being able to take courses on the Internet.

“Universities are supportive of Internet programs and understand the fact that Internet programs are often popular because they are easily accessible,” Smith said. “Universities are striving to develop more programs that can be offered on the Internet and therefore be more accessible to citizens.”

Check accreditation first

Smith said her advice to the business community is to urge employees to seek higher education through an accredited institution and, if appropriate for the field, seek education through an accredited academic program. Ask the accreditation question before registering and paying for a program.

“The advantage of working with the Mississippi universities is that one can be advised on their academic program by people who care about the individual’s future,” Smith said. “If businesses question a course or degree offered on the Internet, please feel free to contact the IHL’s Office of Academic Affairs to determine if it will transfer to a university.”

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Mississippi advises caution in spending money on Internet degrees.

“The Better Business Bureau has always said there is no shortcut to a college degree,” says Harold Palmer, president and CEO of the BBB of Mississippi.”

Palmer advises employers to carefully check credentials, but says that prospective employers are limited in what they can ask prospective employees. That sometimes means people won’t question degrees even if they aren’t familiar with the college.

Palmer said bogus degrees can be a problem, and that they are being used by unethical individuals to get jobs.

Shelia Espy, director of TechSource, a technical recruiting firm in Jackson, agreed it is important for businesses to check credentials of people who are applying for jobs. But she hasn’t yet found any applicants with a bogus degree.

“We have yet to run into a single candidate with a degree that was not legitimate,” Espy said. “But we don’t get into degree verification until an offer is actually made.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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