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NEWS | Sept. 4, 2007

Be wary of diploma mills when taking courses

By James Jurewicz and Judy James Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Charleston Campus

Imagine this ... you go to college for almost two years and earn 45 credit hours. Now you are ready to transfer to a four-year degree program, but discover to your dismay that none of the work you did over the last two years is acceptable as transferred credits to the four-year college.

You tell yourself this can't be happening and that your last two years of hard work has to count for something. Unfortunately, what you didn't know was that the college you attended lacked the proper credentials and accreditation recognized by most colleges. Consequently, your only choice is to take all the classes over again before you can transfer into the four-year college.

You say this can't happen? Well it did happen to a student and after doing two years of make-up work, she is now pursuing her nursing degree. So what does this have to do with you?

According to John Bear, author of Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, diploma mills are big businesses that earn approximately $500 million annually through more than 400 diploma mills and 300 bogus Web sites. Airmen can only expect that this trend will continue to grow over the upcoming years.

What exactly is a diploma mill? Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines a diploma mill as "an institution of higher education operating without supervision of a state or professional agency and granting diplomas which are either fraudulent or, because of the lack of proper standards, worthless."

Diploma mills have existed since the early 1920s with the goal of costing students money without focusing on providing quality education.

Obtaining a degree while in the military, as either active-duty, Reservist or a spouse of a military member, can be a challenge because of the frequent deployments and permanent moves.

The good news is that there are plenty of legitimate colleges and universities that are military-friendly. Taking some extra time to plan education will help prevent a nightmare when completing a degree. All that is required is asking a few questions before signing up for a course to make sure it is legitimate.

There are several factors to consider when selecting an academically sound university. First and foremost, Airmen should ask if the college is regionally accredited. Most diploma mills will have a long list of accrediting agencies that sounds impressive. However, just by asking a few questions, Airmen can discover these agencies aren't regionally accredited, nor are their courses accepted for credit by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Another technique diploma mills use to validate degree programs is to imply in their literature and Web sites that they are sanctioned by state registration and licensing. Don't fall for this trick; national accreditation is not the same as regional accreditation. The latter requires universities and colleges to meet stringent requirements on the quality of academic programs and the faculty who teach for them.

Finally, two last ruses diploma mills employ are the use of a ".edu" internet address and using similar university names of other universities. For example, the real LaSalle University in Pennsylvania isn't the same or associated with LaSalle University in Louisiana. These characteristics do not make them accredited universities.

The Better Business Bureau Web site,, lists several red flags to watch for when considering a school.

Almost all degrees require either 60 credit hours for an associate's degree and 120 hours for a bachelor's degree. Because of this, it is almost impossible to finish a degree in a few months, or even two years in the case of a bachelor's degree, unless a significant amount of credits are transferred from another school or from military training.

Another flag to watch for is tuition. Is the school's tuition paid on a per-degree basis or does it give discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs? Most accredited institutions fees are based on credit hours, course or semester.

Also, watch out for colleges and universities that promise a degree in exchange for a lump some of money and use names similar to reputable universities.

And finally, pay attention to schools that have little or no interaction with professors, require little academic work or assignments and do not require tests in any of their courses.

Fortunately, the military has education centers with trained staff to guide Airmen through this process. There are also several on-base universities and colleges that offer a variety of degree programs, accept College Level Placement Exams and award American Council on Education credit for military experience. These schools are regionally accredited, offer quality academic programs and most are military-friendly because they understand the sacrifices military duty requires.

In closing members from the base's education office would like to offer a bit of advice. Airmen are going to college to learn and become more educated; do not look at getting a degree as "square filling." Airmen may be getting that Officer or Enlisted Performance Report box checked by possessing a degree, but businesses and employers in the civilian sector are well aware of diploma mills and the "easy" colleges and will take that into consideration when reviewing job applications -- it could be the tie-breaker!

Taking the easy way to a college degree is not always the smartest or best way. Employers, including military supervisors, expect Airmen to demonstrate the academic knowledge and skills that accompany a college degree.

So before you submit an application or begin pursuing your education, think about quality instead of speed; doing a little front-end research could save embarrassment and disappointment on the back end.