by Sunnie (Leslie Bowman)
Not too long ago there was a thread on the chatboard about distance learning degrees and diploma mills. I have written the Distance Learning column in the Gazette for a year now and have included many educational opportunities that are available today that were not available a few years ago, thanks to distance learning. I have not written about diploma mills and perhaps it is time for an article on that topic.
There are basically four categories of distance learning degrees. These include degrees from:
- regionally accredited colleges (the term college refers to both two year and four year colleges as well as universities)
- non-regionally accredited colleges
- unaccredited colleges
- diploma mills
First of all, what exactly is accreditation? Accreditation is a process of recognizing educational institutions for performance, integrity, and quality that entitles them to the confidence of the educational community and the public. Accreditation is conducted through non-governmental, voluntary institutional or professional associations that establish evaluation criteria, conduct site visits, and approve institutions. When considering accreditation, one is speaking of US colleges. There is no accreditation of colleges outside the US. International institutions of higher learning are evaluated, if you will, for quality in a variety of ways, but accreditation such as we have here in the US is not done.
The "big six" regional accrediting bodies, recognized by the US Department of Education:
New England Association of Schools & Colleges accreditation of colleges, universities and other degree granting institutions of higher education in the New England region. Area: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. There are two institutions in Greece that are also affiliated.
North Central Association Commission on Institutions of Higher Education handles accreditation of colleges, universities and other degree granting institutions of higher education in the north central region. Area: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Higher Education accredits institutions of higher education in the Middle States region. Area: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Certain Overseas Locations.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools the southern US and other locations. Area: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Extraterritorial (Includes Caribbean, Central and South America, and Mexico)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) covers the western United States, including California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Marinas Islands, the Pacific Basin, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and East Asia, etc.
Northwest Association Of Schools And Colleges covers Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and other geographic areas.
A degree from any regionally accredited college is accepted virtually everywhere. There are also legitimate accrediting bodies recognized by the US Department of Education other than the regional "big six." For example, there are national institutional and specialized accrediting bodies in specific areas of study. There is a complete list on the US Department of Education Web site.
Accreditation is purely voluntary and there are legitimate colleges that choose not to go the accreditation route for a variety of reasons. One thing to keep in mind, too, is that colleges must operate for a certain period of time before they can become accredited. They must show financial stability, a certain quality of coursework, faculty credentials, etc. The minimum time for the accreditation procedure is 3-4 years once the college has made application for accreditation. For more specific information on accreditation, here are some links:
Accreditation at a Crossroads
Overview of Accreditation
A diploma mill is defined as: Any institution offering a postsecondary degree, diploma, or certificate while claiming accreditation which does not exist or which has been granted by an accrediting agency not recognized by either the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as a legitimate accreditor. I would also include schools which do not claim accreditation but misrepresent how widely their degrees are accepted by other educational institutions, licensing and credentialing agencies, and employers in the public and private sectors. From: http://www.degreefinders.com/
The Better Business Bureau has a list of "red flags" to help consumers spot diploma mils from: http://www.bbb.org/library/diplomamills.asp:
- Degrees that can be earned in less time than at a traditional college
- A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Some schools list accreditation by organizations that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, or imply official approval by mentioning of state "registration" or licensing. When in doubt check with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org).
- Offers that place heavy emphasis on offering college credits for lifetime or real world experience.
- Tuition paid on a per-degree basis, or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Traditional colleges charge by credit hours, course, or semester.
- Little or no interaction with professors.
- Names that are similar to well known reputable universities.
- Addresses that are box numbers or suites. That campus may very well be a mail drop box or someone’s attic.
Real or Fake Degrees?
It continues to amaze me when people refer to legitimate, regionally accredited distance learning graduate degrees as "fake" degrees. The reasons stated are usually related to a belief that a degree is "easy" if one does not attend class. A distance learning degree is no easier than a traditional "brick-and-mortar" degree. In fact, in most cases DL degrees are more rigorous and require more work than do traditional degrees. I have read posts on the Teachers.net Chatboard about teachers dropping out of DL grad classes because they were too hard! Somehow that does not seem to equate with an "easy" or "fake" degree.
A DL degree, whether undergraduate or graduate, is a degree just as any other, provided the school is regionally accredited. Neither the diploma nor the transcript specifies whether the degree was obtained by distance learning or in traditional classes or a combination of both. My Masters degree was by distance learning, as will be my doctorate. I will not get a doctorate from a US university however, but from a university in Australia. The cost is about a third that of a US doctorate and there is no coursework. The US model of higher education requires both coursework and dissertation. The European model of higher education (which many Australian universities use) requires no coursework, just research and dissertation. Is the degree easier? Imagine doing research and writing for 3-5 years without spending 2-3 of those years taking courses. It is much more rigorous and the dissertation is about 75,000-100,000 words rather than the traditional 50,000 words. I do not think anyone would say that is "easier" than a traditional degree.
The real point of all this is that there are choices to fit every learning style and preference. I was accepted and enrolled in a US university doctoral program in January. I began two courses and withdrew from the university on the third day. I do not care for coursework as I find it both restrictive and redundant. Fortunately I have a choice, thanks to distance learning, and I can work on my doctorate by doing research rather than taking mundane and irrelevant coursework.
Distance learning degrees are not just for graduate students. Undergraduate students are finding that distance learning offers them choices and opportunities that were previously not available. My younger son is transferring to Fort Hays State University in Kansas -- by distance learning, of course. He will live at home, work, and be able to save enough money to start a business when he is finished with college. He will be able to work more hours per week this way than if he were trying to fit work hours around attending classes, which is what he has been doing for the last year.
Distance Learning Degrees
The fact is that distance learning degrees are real in every sense of the word. This is not to say that ALL distance learning degrees are real. Diploma mills abound; there is no question about that. And prospective students need to be aware of that fact. Following the Better Business Bureau guidelines is a good start in determining whether a degree is real. Checking accreditation is imperative. And if all else fails, you can always ask me. I'll be glad to check out any program for you.
Further resources for locating regionally accredited degree programs:
Bear's Guide to Distance Learning http://www.degree.net
Baker's Guide to Distance Learning http://www.gospelcom.net/bakersguide
Jonnie's Distance Learning Page http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/
Distance Degrees Database (this one specifies accrediting body for each school) http://voled.doded.mil/dantes/
Leslie Bowman (Sunnie) is a frequent contributor to the Teachers.Net Gazette. Other articles written by her are;