Diploma Mills get All Technical
The latest Do Not Enter sign posted in the college parking lot is directed at the country’s “con du jour,” the diploma mill. The shakedown artists that were selling you investment opportunities from the Grand Caymans last year are now peddling bogus college degrees based on “life experience” or some other body of wisdom that is currently in your possession and deserves certification. I remember that you could get a similar certificate thirty years ago by filling out a matchbook cover and sending it to the PO Box along with a modest payment. Now it’s all done in digital format.
There are a couple of social and political phenomena feeding the constant stream of news stories on these internet-based scams. One factor is the current President’s interest in making a college degree available to several million Americans who do not now have one and could probably use one since the job market has undergone a tectonic shift. The other factor is the undeniable success of the online environment as a milieu for education. Distance learning grew 12% from 2007 to 2008 – and 20% of all college students are now taking at least one online course.
What was once the purview of little known, for-profit educational institutions is now seeing a flood of major universities and entire state public school systems entering into the data stream. The schools that created the online education market are now looked on as the bottom feeders in distance learning, since major colleges and universities along with community college districts, high schools, and elementary school districts are all utilizing the technology.
The burst of popularity in online education has drawn its share of frauds, just like every new economic phenomenon does. And make no mistake – education is big business, just ask any recent college graduate carrying loans in five digits. But it seems that if you’re going to a school funded with tax dollars what you learn on your laptop is legit. If you pay for the classes yourself, it might get you a faux sheepskin. What is unfortunate is the fact that somehow all of these institutions that pioneered online education and, not incidentally, allowed open enrollment in their college degree programs, are somehow identified with the diploma mill phenomenon.
Now that the U.S. Department of Education has declared distance learning to be as effective or more so than classroom learning, now that every college in the NCAA is ordering servers for their videotaped lectures, now that distance learning is no longer officially suspect – it seems that the institutions that established online education as a viable choice remain under a cloud. The fact is that online institutions mirror their traditional counterparts. Some are older than others, some are excellent, some are just fair, and some are terrible. And several are owned by respected U.S. corporations. With a $35 billion endowment, Harvard qualifies as a respectable investment house it seems to me.
What matters is what the student gets out of it. Because so many adults are going back to school using distance learning, employers are starting to buy into degrees from these schools. So the thirty year old student who got a bachelor’s degree online – a degree you can’t get at a community college – will get a crack at the new career he’s spent his evenings and weekends studying for. We’d like to offer a helping hand if you’re wondering about one of these colleges that are presumptuous enough to advertise. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited, post-secondary learning institutions here. If there’s any doubt in your mind about a distance learning institution, you can look it up. And give this some thought: every form of new technology has a learning curve. Multidimensional education is no different. Which schools, do you suppose, are doing the better job at online education right now?