Policymakers | Trusteeship

Online Universities: The Dishonor Roll

CONSUMERS DIGEST   |  March 1, 2009 by Rich Dzierwa

In October 2008, careers research firm Vault published the resulls of its 2008 Online Degrees Survey. It reported that only 19 percent of 172 employer-respondents to the survey hired a candidate who possessed only an online degree—a one percentage-point decrease from 3 years earlier. The decline occurred despite the fact that those employers encountered 15 percent more applicants with online degrees. Of the respondents, 63 percent said they’d favor candidates who hold traditional degrees over those who have online degrees. “There is still a bias toward traditional classroom education… ” Vault CEO Erik Sorenson says.

For this reason—and several others—it’s imperative that for-profit online universities deliver what they promise—and that the best interests of the student is paramount. Unfortunately, we aren’t convinced that that’s true.

One problem: accreditation. For-profit online universities tout their accreditation to convince you that their educational approach is on par with that of traditional schools. But the value of accreditation is misleading. Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni tells CD that many of the groups that oversee accreditation for schools rarely revoke a university’s accreditation because of academic standards issues. “If the regional accrediting process were applied to automobile inspection, cars would ‘pass’ as long as they had tires, doors and an engine—without anyone ever turning the key to see if the car actually operated.”

Accreditation can come from a national body or a regional body. The credits from universities that have the latter increasingly tend to be easier to transfer. Ashley Merusi of Online Education Database says her organization is considering changing its rating process regarding accreditation. The group would take into account regional accreditation versus national accreditation rather than look for accreditation of any kind. That could help eliminate the so-called diploma mills that give out degrees that are essentially worthless, she says. These “schools” and numerous other online universities don’t hesitate to sidestep discussions of their accreditation— or they flat-out lie about it. That can include deception in terms of whether specific degree programs are recognized by corresponding professional organizations. This means that you should consult the board or body that grants licenses to do business before you enroll in any school.

Flimsy or no accreditation just scratches the surface of what makes some “institutions” mediocre, if not outright frauds. We discovered this from our research for our special investigative report. “Degrees of Difficulty: The Truth About Online Universities” (page 20). The article delves into the pressure tactics that some “admissions advisers”—read: salespeople—use to get prospective srudents to enroll; the manipulation that unscrupulous for-profit online universities employ to circumvent federal law to latch on to financial aid; the subpar education that some provide, as a result of pressure put on class instructors to inflate grades, so students don’t drop out and tuition money keeps rolling in. We spoke with former students, instructors and recruiters to get the facts.

At a time when so many Americans are reeling from the recession and layoffs, and when those same people are trying to figure out how to improve their incomes or find new employment, the appeal of a quick degree from an online university can be strong. It’s extremely infuriating to us that people are being misled and that their hopes are being raised falsely. The Department of Education doesn’t seem willing to crack down on these scammers. That leaves it up to you: Read our article. Scrutinize any online university that you’re considering. Quiz its representatives on specifics. Don’t flunk out when it comes to the due diligence that is required as you work toward obtaining a legitimate online degree.


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