Evaluating online degrees

We’ve addressed issues surrounding for-profit college scams in the past. There’s also the issue of rising college costs in general, and also the opportunities for self-education for free.

Here’s an excellent article that gives great advice on how to evaluate online courses and degrees. It’s important to use objective resources and guides.

You don’t mention whether you’ve already tried Googling, say, “online degree programs,” but, if so, you’ve no doubt been bombarded with advertising from for-profit schools. The University of Phoenix alone spends over $200 million a year on television and Internet pitches, according to an estimate from Madison Avenue trade paper Ad Age. Nothing wrong with advertising, of course, but in some respects it does make the process of choosing the right online school more difficult.

Here’s why: more than 7,000 U.S. colleges and universities now offer long-distance degree programs — and about 85% of those are traditional brick-and-mortar schools that have expanded into cyberspace over the past few years. Yet traditional colleges don’t have the marketing budgets that the huge for-profit schools have. So unless you actively seek out brick-and-mortar schools’ online offerings, you may never know they exist.

“Prospective students should be wary of Internet ‘guides’ to online education that get paid to promote for-profit schools,” says Vicky Phillips. “It’s called pay-per-lead advertising, and it means the ‘guide’ gets X dollars for each person it steers to a for-profit university.” Traditional colleges don’t have such deep pockets, so thousands of them are unlikely to turn up in such directories at all.

“Not only that, but the for-profit schools have tens of thousands of students, while the online bachelor’s-in-business program at a traditional university can only accept, say, 30 at a time,” she adds. “So even if traditional colleges could afford to pay for online leads, it wouldn’t make sense for them to do so. They’re operating on an entirely different scale.”

Phillips has been researching and comparing online degree programs for 20 years, which is about as long as they’ve existed. She runs a consumer-information web site called GetEducated.com that you might want to check out. The site includes a comparison tool that lets you evaluate and rank schools using 12 different filters. These include type of specialization in your major (business with a minor in finance, for instance); non-profit versus for-profit; secular versus religious (many Christian colleges now offer long-distance learning); and whether the school’s programs are 100% online or “hybrids,” meaning you’ll have to show up in person several times per semester.

There are tons of great options for online education, both free and those that require payments. You just have to do your research and find the solution that’s best for you. Just be careful of any program where you will end up with loads of college debt.

For-profit colleges that target the homeless?

We keep finding interesting stories around the problem of for-profit college scams. The latest is a report from BusinessWeek in the spring about how some recruiters for University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges were targeting homeless people in Cleveland and other cities.

Benson Rollins wants a college degree. The unemployed high school dropout who attends Alcoholics Anonymous and has been homeless for 10 months is being courted by the University of Phoenix. Two of its recruiters got themselves invited to a Cleveland shelter last October and pitched the advantages of going to the country’s largest for-profit college to 70 destitute men.

Their visit spurred the 23-year-old Rollins to fill out an online form expressing interest. Phoenix salespeople then barraged him with phone calls and e-mails, urging a tour of its Cleveland campus. “If higher education is important to you for professional growth, and to achieve your academic goals, why wait any longer? Classes start soon and space is limited,” one Phoenix employee e-mailed him on Apr. 15. “I’ll be happy to walk you through the entire application process.”

Rollins’ experience is increasingly common. The boom in for-profit education, driven by a political consensus that all Americans need more than a high school diploma, has intensified efforts to recruit the homeless. Such disadvantaged students are desirable because they qualify for federal grants and loans, which are largely responsible for the prosperity of for-profit colleges. Federal aid to students at for-profit colleges jumped from $4.6 billion in 2000 to $26.5 billion in 2009. Publicly traded higher education companies derive three-fourths of their revenue from federal funds, with Phoenix at 86%, up from just 48% in 2001 and approaching the 90% limit set by federal law.

The article goes on to allege similar problems at Drake College of Business and Chancellor University in Cleveland which has Jack Welch as an investor and spokesman.

The article also alleges that relaxed standards under the Bush administration helped exacerbate the problem, but now the Obama administration is tightening the rules.

Some schools have suspended the policy of recruiting at homeless shelters after the publication of the BusinessWeek article.

ABC News investigates for-profit colleges

ABC News has been investigating for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix, and they found plenty of evidence of problems similar to other for-profit college scams.

Ads for online schools are all over the Internet, plastered on billboards in subway cars and on television. The University of Phoenix, with nearly 500,000 students, is the biggest for-profit college. But some former students said they were duped into paying big bucks and going deeply in debt by slick and misleading recruiters.

“I don’t want anyone else to be sucked in,” said Melissa Dalmier, 30, of Noble, Ill.

The mother of three had big dreams to be an elementary school teacher, so when she saw ads for the University of Phoenix pop-up on her computer, she e-mailed them for more information. A few minutes later, Dalmier said she got a call from one of the school’s recruiters, who she said told her that enrolling in the associate’s degree in education program at the University of Phoenix would put her on the fast-track to reaching her dream.

“[The recruiter said] they had an agreement with Illinois State Board of Education and that as soon as I finished their program I’d be ready to start working,” she recalled.

Within 15 minutes, Dalmier was enrolled. Since she didn’t have enough money to pay for tuition, she said the recruiter helped her get federal student aid. In total, she took out about $8,000 in federally-guaranteed student loans.

But just a few months after Dalmier started, she said she learned the horrible truth: the degree program she was enrolled in would not qualify her to become a public school teacher upon graduation in Illinois.

“It was an outright lie. A bold faced lie,” she said.

ABC News did its own undercover investigation, and found the same despicable practices. Recruiters also push prospective students to load up on the student loans. Read the rest of the story and check out this video.

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