The Online Diploma Mill Wants You
December 15, 2009 3:34 PM   Subscribe

He just can’t remember what course he’s taking. "At Phoenix, members of the armed forces can earn an associate’s degree by taking one five-week online class, “Written Communication.” They can make up for the other 19 courses required for an associate’s degree with credits for classes taken elsewhere, military experience including basic training, and passing grades on tests that gauge knowledge of a subject area. Not surprisingly, says one critic: "I’m afraid that the ease with which these outfits hand out diplomas is matched only by the disappointment of their graduates when they find out how little their degrees are actually worth.”

Some of the online institutions aren't even accredited, but that doesnt stop them from cashing in on a $750-per-student-per-course payment from the Defense Department without any out-of-pocket expenses.
From the article:
"...students could retake the final test until they passed...'I took it 10 times. I kept getting the same answers wrong.'"
posted by nj_subgenius (42 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
They should change the law so that the funding can only be used at public, accredited colleges. It will put more money into public universities, which are flailing, and will encourage people who are on active duty to work on their degrees.

The one good thing the army did for my dad was to help him earn his associate degree by correspondence with a public school. I think he also took some courses toward a bachelor's degree. When he decided to go to seminary after retiring, however, he couldn't use his GI Bill. (To which I say, "Yay!")
posted by brina at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

But people get all uptight when you bring up the homeschooling analogy when compared to the military.
posted by Balisong at 3:58 PM on December 15, 2009

Er... applied to the military.
posted by Balisong at 4:00 PM on December 15, 2009

My understanding is that most of these places exist almost solely to satisfy the demand of active-duty enlisted personnel who need degrees for extra promotion points. (I don't know how the Marines work, but the Army does enlisted promotions based in part on a system of 'promotion points,' where the slots get filled by eligible candidates based on the number of points they have. You can get points for a number of things, but civilian education is fairly significant IIRC.)

I think the underlying problem is that a lot of servicepeople don't think ahead to their post-military career plans when selecting a college — they're just looking to get the extra 150 or 200 points towards promotion. The online colleges get that box checked, but their value is basically limited to that; once you're out of the military, they're not thought of very highly.

I'm not sure there's a very easy solution. The immediate thing to do would be for the DoD to tighten its standards for what it accepts as "civilian education," in handing out promotion points. But accreditation in general is sort of a mess, and it sometimes seems to be less a guarantee of quality than a simple attempt at entrenchment of the status quo; a way for established institutions to push back against anyone new, regardless of quality. It would be unfortunate to throw away the baby of low-cost distance learning in order to get rid of the bathwater of some bad diploma-mill online schools. (Which, at any rate, are hardly new; the "Close Cover Before Striking School of..." has been a joke for generations, due to the low quality of and dubious advertising by some correspondence schools.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:06 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

"I’m afraid that the ease with which these outfits hand out diplomas is matched only by the disappointment of their graduates when they find out how little their degrees are actually worth.”

Their employers, too, I should think.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2009

The Marine Corps does a point system, but it's not based on degrees or even job-related testing like in the Navy. Your composite score is determined by your PFT score ( running, pullups, situps ), your rifle range score, and some other factors like time in grade and time in service.

At least, that's how it works up to E5. Don't know about the staff level and beyond.
posted by heathkit at 4:43 PM on December 15, 2009

As an aside, public school teachers often turn to University of Phoenix to accumulate credits toward their periodic recertification (or even for their M.A. program, which might be better for all I know). The courses are cheap and stupid. I hesitate to reveal this scam, because other professionals have their continuing education courses paid for, while underpaid teachers have to pay for their own courses in many states, and hardly have the time, unless summer school classes have matching schedules, to take a real course. Plus, real courses, while providing more content, cost three to seven times as much as these fakey schools, and take a lot more work. I wish I could afford to take real courses from real universities to augment my repository of teaching strategies, but I can't. I have taken U of P classes, or their equivalent, many times.
posted by kozad at 5:00 PM on December 15, 2009

He just can’t remember what course he’s taking.

But he gives a very valid reason for it in the very next line of the linked article: The 22-year-old from Dalton, Georgia, suffered a brain injury that impaired his ability to concentrate when artillery shells hit his Humvee in Iraq in 2006, he said.

So it seems his inability to remember is neither the fault of the University of Phoenix nor due to the soldier's lack of effort. The writer could have been a little kinder to Corporal Long than to depict him as the poster boy for half-assed education.
posted by grounded at 5:04 PM on December 15, 2009 [8 favorites]

Is it really an education if he can't remember it?
Should the degree act as a resume enhancer if he can't remember what he took, or what he learned?
posted by Balisong at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2009

I'd have to look up the regs on it, but I'm pretty sure you only get credit towards advancement if your associate's or bachelor's is accredited. As for people using the 9/11 GI Bill at non-accredited schools, one of the largest complaints about the Montgomery GI Bill was that you couldn't use it to, say, go to culinary school, or a trade school. You had to use it at an academic school. So now we give the guys and gals what they want. What they do with it is up to them.
posted by squorch at 5:10 PM on December 15, 2009

Whoops, turns out I am completely ass-backwards on the trade school thing. Disregard that...
posted by squorch at 5:13 PM on December 15, 2009

Kozad: my mom was a full time kindergarten teacher raising two kids, and she got her masters +15 from a real university. It's a lot of late nights and a lot of work, but I think saying it's too hard or too expensive is kind of a cop out.
posted by rusty at 5:16 PM on December 15, 2009

University of Phoenix is one of those entities where I mostly sit around going "So, when's the big scandal going to erupt." This is a pretty good one. But as far as I can tell, from the outside, U of P is one of those places that is just churning out people and devaluing the concept of higher education as having any meaning.

One of them.
posted by jscott at 5:16 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

But people get all uptight when you bring up the homeschooling analogy when compared to the military.

I don't know who these people are or what the analogy is. Would you like to say more?
posted by not that girl at 5:23 PM on December 15, 2009

Not that girl- Think homegrown militias, or training camps out in the woods that teach you how to raid a house/office building.
posted by Balisong at 5:26 PM on December 15, 2009

Not that girl- Think homegrown militias, or training camps out in the woods that teach you how to raid a house/office building.

Sorry, I'm still not getting it. Maybe it doesn't matter, but if you feel like laying it out like homeschooling, military, militia 101 it would satisfy my curiosity and relieve my confusion.
posted by not that girl at 5:35 PM on December 15, 2009

Kozad: my mom was a full time kindergarten teacher raising two kids, and she got her masters +15 from a real university. It's a lot of late nights and a lot of work, but I think saying it's too hard or too expensive is kind of a cop out.
Yeah, those over-privileged kindergarten teachers really shouldn't expect to have any free time, spare cash, or a family life.

Seriously? Are you listening to yourself?
posted by craichead at 5:47 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

OK. Would you be for, or against, civilians training in military style combat tactics, interrogation techniques, homemade tanks, border militias, etc.
I'm just turning this post's situation around. If military personnel are seeking "education" from shady sources, and it's fine, since it doesn't really apply to their military experience, why can't civilians seek military training from shady sources that they probably will never need to use in their personal lives. One is accepted, and one is frowned upon.
posted by Balisong at 5:48 PM on December 15, 2009

Because one is training you to kill people and the other is training you to write badly?
posted by desjardins at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2009 [7 favorites]

That article sure is all over the place. Half the data that's provided contradicts the people it's quoting, all of whom seem to have a vested interest in this subject.
posted by smackfu at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2009

U of P is one of those places that is just churning out people

You're thinking of the Duggars.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:57 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Servicemembers' Opportunity Colleges consortium page lists the key features of member colleges.
1. Reasonable Transfer of Credit: avoid excessive loss of previously earned credit and avoid course work duplication

2. Reduced Academic Residency: limited to no more than 25% of degree requirements with no final year or semester in residence (may require 30% for undergraduate degrees offered 100% online)

3. Credit for Military Training and Experience: recognize and use ACE Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services in evaluating and awarding academic credit for military training and experience

4. Credit for Nationally-Recognized Testing Programs: award credit for at least one nationally-recognized testing program such as College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) General and Subject Exams, (DANTES) Subject Standardized Tests (DSST), Excelsior College Examinations (ECE)
Some of these schools are sketchy, some are not (University of Alabama, George Washington University, Colorado State - to pick a few at random).
posted by desjardins at 5:59 PM on December 15, 2009

1. University of Phoenix is fully accredited by the same organization that accredits most other colleges and universities: "University of Phoenix is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the North Central Association."

2. It ain't Stanford - no argument from me. But it's not a diploma mill. It is definitely a place where a student gets out of the program whatever s/he puts into it.

3. Yes, it is sometimes used by military personnel to advance their careers - but not all of them do it solely for "promotion points."

4. And yes, sometimes a military member can earn an associates degree with just a few courses at a civilian institution - but those troops did a whole lot of coursework for their military training in their military specialty. Valid, tough, demanding coursework (often under much tougher conditions that most civilian college students).

The UoP program was right for me when I did it in NorCal back in the mid-90s -- full-time military guy, married, kids, etc. It set me on a path to graduation, laid out all of the courses that I needed, and I worked my butt off and graduated. A few years later, based on my undergrad degree and GRE scores, I earned a graduate degree from Baylor University. Wouldn't have been able to do that without my UoP degree.

What I learned during my compressed, focused courses as an adult student probably compares favorably to the experience of, say, a 20-year old kid crammed into a 4-month long course delivered in a huge lecture hall.

So while there is some valid criticism of UoP, please remember that for some people, it's a valid educational path.
posted by davidmsc at 6:15 PM on December 15, 2009 [9 favorites]

The military should spend trillions to weaponize education, and field-test and rate the quality of it, like they would a cruise missile, until it works. Unlike the bazookas with $500 rocket ammo, and the hi-tech aviation weaponry, this weapon goes home with the soldier.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:29 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Totally anecdotal, but I've been told more than once by people in hiring positions in my former jobs in the tech industry that a "diploma" from an online university is pretty much worse than no diploma at all. Of course you factor in experience, etc. as well, but they're seen as fake degrees and little better than the old diploma-mills. It's seen as a bad indicator.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:20 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, this of course doesn't apply to distance-learning programs from actual legit universities, etc., only to strictly "online universities" like University of Phoenix.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:21 PM on December 15, 2009

brina: "They should change the law so that the funding can only be used at public, accredited colleges. It will put more money into public universities, which are flailing, and will encourage people who are on active duty to work on their degrees."

I currently work for a Community College, and formerly worked for a land grant public university. If things worked the way you think they do, we wouldn't need it. No public university funds itself through tuition. Yes, tuition is charged, but it barely covers hiring adjunct, let alone rent, utilities and administrative overhead. The majority of our money comes from land taxes (the majority of research unis comes from ... research!).

What this means our tax receipts are down, and we naturally have more student enrollment in recessions. We're fortunate to not be in places where land value is falling dramatically, but we still have to cut in the face of growing enrollment. In order to make your proposition feasible, we'd have to raise tuition dramatically.
posted by pwnguin at 7:24 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

University of Phoenix isn't strictly an "online institution", decemberBoy. UoP has plenty of brick'n'mortar schools across the country. As Davemsc above wrote, UoP is a valid education path for some of us. Perhaps the online version isn't, but then, I'm rather skeptical of any "online degrees".
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 8:03 PM on December 15, 2009

Even the in-person version seems a bit wacky. Take a browse through their course calendars; there really are “underwater soap carving”-style credits. More than usual, that is; every university seems to have sleeper courses.

Mind, my “USC”-style psychology course, all self-exploration and world-view challenging shit led by a creepy sex fiend prof, was one of the best courses I took, in that I came away with wisdom instead of knowledge.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:10 PM on December 15, 2009

I don't know about UoP, but I do know that I specifically asked Oregon State University Nuclear Engineering department person if they were OK with a degree from Thomas Edison State College (a SOC partner, can be done 100% online) as a qualification for a masters program. They said it was perfectly fine and they have had many successful students in the program with that degree.

I am thankful someone recommended calling to ask on AskMe. I'm pretty relieved that, at least where I want to go, the bachelors degree I intend to finish is not considered worthless.
posted by ctmf at 8:18 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

desjardins and Balisong

I know that all training from the Military does not apply. I did get 1 hour of PE credit for the 8 weeks of push ups I did in basic. Also, I know more about underwater acoustics and the physics of sound than 99% of the population from my training in SONAR. I also had to learn about electronics and Local Area Networks. All things that have civilian application. The actual hands on experience in troubleshooting and learning that I got on board the ship are something the best schools cannot duplicate.

People on this sight need to get past the notion that being in the military means that you are a knuckle dragging idiot.
posted by empty vessel at 12:19 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have a loved one in the military right now who has earned an online master's. My concern, like that expressed in this article, has nothing to do with thinking badly of her--she's awesome and smart and, if she hadn't been spending most of her time in missile silos for days at a time, she would have had no problem earning a traditional master's--it has to do with these schools in some cases falsely presenting their degrees as all equivalent to each other and all equivalent to a degree from a traditional school.

It sounds like even the folks whose job it is to advise people on which degrees to get don't always know the difference between the legitimate schools and those that keep moving their headquarters to get easier accreditation or those that are "nationally accredited". Great options exist for people to get degrees online from places like University of Maryland University College (as mentioned in the article), but somebody with a serious more-than-full-time job in which they are frequently risking their lives can't be expected to spend a lot of time researching which schools are legitimate, especially when the military is already paying people to do that for them.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:30 AM on December 16, 2009

kozad: public school teachers often turn to University of Phoenix to accumulate credits toward their periodic recertification

doesn't anybody use Empire State College anymore? That used to be the big military go-to school.
posted by lodurr at 5:45 AM on December 16, 2009

Balisong: I think I'm still not getting the homeschooling analogy. Are you trying to spell out a scenario where people would get combat training or specialist training at home, then get credit from the military? Or get to bypass basic training if they were part of a militia?

If that is your question, then my answer would be: a) Not all analogies are reversible; b) the military has certain requirements for the skills of its members, and it meets those, but it has no requirements w.r.t. to those members' civilian skills, so it doesn't try to meet them. Is that what you're looking for?
posted by lodurr at 5:50 AM on December 16, 2009

empty vessel - my comment was directed at Balisong's false equivalence between sketchy schools and militias, not the military.

I think Balisong's bizarre analogy goes like this:
1. Military personnel are seeking education from sketchy schools such as UoP
2. Such education has little application to their military career
3. Militias provide a sort of education to civilians
4. Such education has little application to their civilian life
5. ???
6. Why isn't homeschooling given the same respect as militias, or something

I don't know. Balisong has a history of.... views that conflict with the majority here, so I've pretty much stopped trying to make sense of them.
posted by desjardins at 6:23 AM on December 16, 2009

I have taken online courses through a local community college, most recently c++ programming II and it was actually harder than taking the same class in a more traditional setting or maybe I just couldn't quite grok using pointers with arrays. That was probably 7 years or so back so I imagine these offerings have expanded since then. I don't think online, nonresident, or correspondence courses necessarily equate to a diploma mill. Getting an associates degree in 5 weeks is pretty suspicious but not all nontraditional programs lack rigor.
posted by Tashtego at 9:47 AM on December 16, 2009

I am currently enrolled in an online degree program and a lot of my classmates are in the military. One of my classmates is currently deployed to South Korea, another is in Iraq right now. They work extremely hard, and when they participate in class discussions they offer some of the more insightful comments. I really enjoy being in classes with so many working people, professionals, and people with families.

Something in the article that I have seen reiterated multiple times in this thread:

“You have two people of the same caliber, one has a degree from a real college, one has a degree from a computer, I’m going to favor the one from the live college,” Rand said. “It’s more verifiable, more credible.”

Well now here's the thing. Those who say online degree program graduates don't have "real" degrees, well, what about those who have online degrees but from "real, live" colleges? How do they know if the person with the Drexel MBA got the "real" one or the online one? Or how about that Dartmouth grad? The university I'm attending through the online program is another one of "real, live" colleges that has greatly expanded its options to include online degree programs. I won't set foot on campus until my graduation ceremony. Doesn't keep me from writing for the college paper or joining a sorority. I guess if I spent more time getting drunk before I write my term papers they'd be more real?
posted by Danila at 2:44 PM on December 16, 2009

Man, that poor Marine. It's like he's living out the nightmare where you suddenly remember about that class that you've ignored/forgotten about/cut for the entire semester, and not only are you completely lost when you finally show up, they're about to have the final.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:31 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Those who say online degree program graduates don't have "real" degrees, well, what about those who have online degrees but from "real, live" colleges?

The article specifically mentioned these programs and that they're good. My reading was that the article was advocating that more members of the military should be pursuing degrees from good schools offering good online education, because obviously many military careers are not conducive to traditional education. The problems highlighted by the article are not with online education in general, but with crappy online education from schools that shop for accreditation so they can look legitimate. If you are not going to one of those schools, the article is not criticizing your education.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:44 AM on December 17, 2009

my wife occasionally teaches online sections at the SUNY college where she's employed as a composition instructor. (She's the only instructor in her department with any experience teaching online.) In terms of the "high-tech low-touch tango", her students in online and hybrid-online (only a few f2f meetings) generally say they get more access to the instructor than do students in the traditional classes. Most also say that the classes are harder.

At the same time, the department administrator insists that online classes are inferior because quality education demands f2f interaction....

[shrug /]

It's all gonna be online what can be online, soon enough. I think a lot of it is generational. She and I are at the age-cusp (she's 40, I'm 45, but we both graduated college well into adulthood) where we "get" both worlds and can see to some extent what we lose and what we gain. we share the attitude that stuff changes and you deal with it. 'dealing with it' w.r.t. online ed means figuring out how to ensure quality and make sure students and teachers do everything they're supposed to. we can be sure it will shake out. in the mean time, some people will get meaningless degrees. it's not the end of the world.
posted by lodurr at 10:50 AM on December 17, 2009

hydropsyche, I think the article is pretty sloppy in general with whatever argument the author is trying to make. I pulled out a quote where all online education is denigrated by a hiring manager because the degree comes "from a computer". Why include that if it isn't relevant? The author seems to be denigrating online education in general, and throws in every argument against them, including the argument that they aren't real degrees because you don't sit face to face with your professor in a classroom. I also think it is not fair play that their sole example of a student who has suffered is the one with a brain injury. He has a disability, and perhaps the school accommodates that. I have attended several online degree programs, including one at the school he attends, and I could only take any test once. I don't even see an indication that the schools were contacted to defend themselves.

The article makes no distinctions between the many universities and colleges that it names. Some of them are completely online, some have brick and mortar campuses all over the country (like the University of Phoenix), and some have a traditional campus with some online degree programs (like Ashford University).

“Some of these schools prey on Marines,” Songer said. “Day and night, they call you, they e-mail you. These servicemen get caught in that. Nobody in their families ever went to college. They don’t know about college.”

Well, that's one way to look at it. I will say this: I had given up on going to college. I have wanted to go, true, but there was just no way. Dirt poor, disabled, I bounced from high school to high school and eventually had to drop out. Colleges and universities weren't going to go out of their way to help me through the process and the steps of applying. That was always the main thing that discouraged me. I didn't go to the kinds of high schools that even had any "college prep". One high school counselor discouraged me from taking any higher math courses because it would probably be too hard as she'd seen so many other students fail. No one offered help with the SATs, you just either went and took 'em or you didn't. And as far as most of the universities are concerned, you serve them. Over the years I'd contacted schools a bunch of times, just trying to get answers to basic questions and help with the process. It was always so discouraging.

If the for-profit schools hadn't made things a lot easier for me (walked me through all of the applications and forms, thoroughly explained and walked me through the financial aid process, offered daily access to multiple advisors, waived fees, etc.) I wouldn't have any chance at all. Did they do it for the government money? Assuredly so. And? Isn't that supposed to be the point of government-financed education? To grease the wheels for the disadvantaged? Are people with families, adults working multiple jobs, disabled people, and deployed people just supposed to stay invisible? Although now we're told it doesn't matter what school you go to, associate's degrees and bachelor degrees are pretty much worthless in this economy. The line is always moving.

I don't excuse any legitimate wrongdoing or fraud, but the article didn't focus on that. I think the author of the article exploited and discouraged that soldier more than his school.

I think online education is only going to become more and more pervasive. It's an easy way for any university to make money, for-profit or no. I'm tired of the backwards-thinking exhibited throughout the article, like the HR head who will hire people with online degrees, just not for any leadership track positions, or the one who doesn't like any degree that comes from a computer.
posted by Danila at 7:09 PM on December 17, 2009

It's an easy way for any university to make money, for-profit or no.

This is what my wife points out to her department head, and it's what deans all over SUNY are saying. But the middle-management layer, at least in NY's public colleges, seems to be stuck in a place where they just don't want to deal with the change.

Danila, your comments about the advantages of online ed are also really apt. In the few sections she's gotten to teach at this school, my wife's had several service people overseas; I went to a Library school dog-n-pony a few weeks back where online was just assumed, because it's a population that's spread out and needs to use a relatively small number of schools for their advanced study.

The paradox is that the online classes, while saving money (no physical plant! dirt cheap infrastructure!), take more work on the part of the instructor: If it's done according to the "best practice" standards, instructors have to invest more time, and the fact that students can and will read out directly via email, chat, etc. means that you have to deal with more individual queries (which translates to 'more personal interaction', a good thing for students). I mention it not as a negative, but to illustrate that people who talk about this stuff from the negative side rarely really understand the dynamics of it. They think it's just automation, just like an assembly line, when really it's often more like the New Yankee Workshop: using the most sophisticated power tools to create a better educational environment student by student.
posted by lodurr at 6:17 AM on December 18, 2009

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