How to Determine if an Online Institution is Credible

Guest Blog Post by Brittany Lyons ~ 


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According to a November 2011 study by Babson Survey Research Group, more than 6.1 million students enrolled in at least one web-based class in 2010, an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year. Online degrees offer educational credentials from the comfort of one’s living home—but experts say the convenience carries substantial risk. Fraudulent institutions that offer worthless degrees pose a threat to well-meaning young people who hope to receive a real education.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported that e-learning scams have snared hundreds of victims. Typically, these “schools” offer university and high school diplomas for cash. Students complete courses and receive a certificate in the mail, only to be told it holds no academic value by admission offices, employers and military recruiters. Unfortunately these “diploma mills” that have become more prevalent as online student numbers rise.

However that is not say all schools found online are scams. The BBB acknowledges that many online institutions are reputable and offer legitimate services, providing some students who may not otherwise been able attend school in a traditional setting an opportunity to enhance their education. BBB spokesman Steve Cox points out, “Education is one of the keys to advancing in life and having a diploma or advanced degree can certainly make a difference when it comes to getting into college or landing a higher-paying job.”

If a student does decide to attend an online school, a resource for accredited online PhD degrees explains that it is important for the student to thoroughly investigate the college prior to enrollment. The most crucial aspect to explore is whether the university is accredited and by whom. The BBB adds that one good way to determine accreditation is to crosscheck the program with the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. If students still have questions about the program, they want to visit an admissions office at a state college or university to ensure that the degree will help applicants earn consideration from admissions departments in the future.

There are also a number of red flags that indicate a potentially shady institution. A course-load that rewards points based on “life experience” or unusually easy exams often denotes a scam. The same is true of any “guarantees” of completion made by the program to the student, or deals for those who sign up to earn multiple degrees at once. “People who want to further themselves see something that looks really quick and easy,” Houston’s BBB spokeswoman told ABCNews.com. “People should know that if they get a college degree, there is a lot of time involved.”

Students should also note the program’s contact information. Illegitimate programs often list addresses with suite numbers and post office boxes, while the phone number may not be listed at all. Foreign offices should also be treated as suspicious, especially if the program’s description makes no mention of international culture or overseas-based curriculum.

The BBB shut down three fraudulent online degree programs last year, but the organization claims many more are still lurking on the web. Operated by the same parent company, Belford High School and Belford University are the biggest offenders—with 117 complaints from individuals in 40 states. The high school program offers a high school diploma based on “life experience;” according to its site, which also claims 99 percent of colleges accept the degree. The university program offers associate, bachelor and even doctorate degrees for no more than $1,400. However, the BBB says that in reality the degrees are not seen as proper credentials by colleges or military recruiters.

Another violator is MMDS Ltd., a company based in the St. Kitts. Their most popular program, Jefferson High School Online (JHSO), offers high school diplomas for roughly $200. Course results are determined by a “life experience” questionnaire, which asks students to list musical tastes and preferred weekend activities. Following the questionnaire, the student takes a multiple-choice test that provides hints and allows three incorrect guesses per question. More than a hundred JHSO “graduates” have complained to the BBB about numerous rejections from colleges nationwide.

As young men and women strive to earn a degree and enter the American work force, it is important for them to proceed with caution. Online college scams represent the most recent incarnation of fraudulent Internet practices that have evolved to match consumer trends and web activity. Luckily, the headaches associated with obtaining a worthless degree can be avoided with a thorough preliminary investigation, and an eye for sketchy web conduct.

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Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.

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