By Jacqueline Foster
Are you considering earning a degree online, but concerned about quality? You’re right to be concerned. Bad actors in the world of online education have a reputation for high pressure sales tactics, high prices, and low quality academics. An article earlier this month posted on 89.3 KPCC Southern California Public Radio outlines a few pointers for avoiding diploma mills, or unaccredited colleges that crank out degrees without requiring students to complete the appropriate amount of academic work to earn them.
A few signs of diploma mills include pushy sales tactics, particularly targeted at younger students, who often don’t know how to verify accreditation or compare programs to make sure they are paying a fair price for a higher education. Another sign of a diploma mill, the article points out, is exaggerated claims as to how much money you can make in a given profession if you graduate from one of the programs. A credible school will make no guarantees of either employment in a given field or salaries, as neither are certain in today’s economy — even for graduates of the most reputable schools entering the most in-demand career fields.
Diploma mills may also charge significantly higher tuition rates than other schools offering the same program, but play up your ability to land student loans. Sure, you can obtain student loans to go to college, but why accumulate more in debt than you absolutely must? If you are considering a private, online education, compare the price to other private schools.
Another thing to watch out for is schools that advertise degree programs that can be completed in an exceedingly short time frame. While reputable, accelerated programs do exist, it is unreasonable to assume that you can complete a four-year degree in one year or less, for example. Compare the number of credit hours you must complete in a program to another program at the major public and private universities in your state. If an associate or bachelor’s program at the school you are considering requires significantly fewer clock hours or credit hours than a similar degree program offered by your state’s most reputable public and private colleges and universities, you might be looking at a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
In addition, watch out for schools that offer huge amounts of credit for life experience or real-world experience. While many legitimate schools do offer some credit for life experience, these schools will require rigorous testing and documentation in order for you to prove that you have acquired a knowledge base in a given subject area. Colleges that offer degrees based primarily or entirely on life experience are likely diploma mills, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Credible schools tend to cap the number of credits that can be attained through life experience, and have strict guidelines as to what counts as life experience.
A good way to see if a certain online institution is reputable is by contacting a well-known college or university in your area, asking to speak to a registrar or college counselor, and inquiring into whether the school accepts transfer credits from the online institution in question, the article notes. If college after college that you call will not accept transfer credits from that school, a red flag should go up. This is a strong indication that reputable schools do not consider that online school’s course work to be up to par with their own, and could indicate that you’ve stumbled upon a diploma mill.