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Learning to Avoid Scholastic Fraud

Education If you plan to earn a degree outside the traditional classroom, doing your homework is key to finding a legitimate school.

November 16, 1998|LILLIAN REITER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two different students, two different outcomes:

Juli Keene of Manhattan Beach enrolled in the National Institute of Nutritional Education and, after two years, earned the necessary credentials to obtain a license as a nutritional counselor.

Jamie Stockdale of Oceanside enrolled at Columbia State University, Louisiana, for a combined bachelor's and master's degree in criminal justice. The day before she was to mail her final paper to a campus in Metairie, La., she learned that the school was actually operating out of a San Clemente warehouse, and had been raided by federal authorities. The school's owner, who had been enjoying the good life in a $2-million mansion, was nowhere to be found.

Both the National Institute of Nutritional Education and Columbia State University are considered distance-education schools--a term that encompasses any academic or job-training program administered outside a traditional classroom. Instead of hearing a lecture as a group, students get printed materials, audio and video tapes, computer software and television courses.

What is the difference between the schools? Valid accreditation, and the buyer should beware.

The National Institute of Nutritional Education is recognized by the Distance Education and Training Council; Columbia State University is not.

In fact, the Louisiana attorney general's office has obtained a permanent injunction against Columbia State University, banning it from operating in the state, or receiving mail or telephone calls.

"There's no school, no accreditation, and all the research, testimonials and degrees are bogus," said Louisiana State Atty. Gen. Richard Ieyoub, whose office is investigating similar distance-learning programs.

Education experts say there may be as many as 350 fraudulent distance-learning institutions in the world--or about 5% of the total number. But they also note that standards kept by the legitimate ones also vary.

"Because there is so much gray area, it's a good idea to stay with schools that have valid accreditation," said John Bear, who has a doctorate in communication from Michigan State University and wrote "Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally" (Ten Speed Press, 1998, $28).

The issue of accreditation is one of the most important factors in selecting a school yet is perhaps the least understood. It is a voluntary practice based on evaluations by various agencies and is not controlled by federal or state governments.

Accreditation agencies set the standards for an entire institution or for specific programs within a school. Traditional public and private colleges and universities are usually accredited by six regional agencies. California State Universities and University of California schools are accredited by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

Many trade organizations and professional associations, such as the American Bar Assn., also grant accreditation status to specific departments or highly specialized schools that offer only one kind of degree.

Other agencies, such as the Distance Education and Training Council, grant accreditation status to schools specializing in distance education. The DETC is an accrediting agency for more than 60 distance-education institutions throughout the U.S. enrolling 2 million people.

Students can get accreditation information from the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

But "if a school is accredited by an agency not recognized by either of these associations, run, don't walk," said Michael Lambert of the DETC.

Experts concede there are some instances when national accreditation may not be a deciding factor for a prospective student. Many schools might be in the process of securing recognition by legitimate agencies. In others, a student might simply want to learn more about a particular job skill or take a few courses to lead to a promotion rather than using distance learning to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree.

To avoid spending money on an unaccredited diploma mill, Bear recommends studying up on the distance-education programs that interest you.

"Earning a degree is something you only do once or twice in your lifetime," Bear said. "People must understand there's thin ice out there. Not doing your homework is like getting married after the first date."

The starting points?

* Speak to your employer before investing time and money in training that might not translate into a promotion or higher salary.

* Confirm that the school is more than a mailbox-only operation.

* Be wary of degrees awarded on the basis of credit for life experience.

At Columbia State University, students "earned" credits for keeping tropical fish and playing board games.

"We think credit for life experience is very dangerous," said the DETC's Lambert. "At our schools, you cannot get more than 25% of the necessary degree credits for life experience, and most of our schools don't even go close to 10%."

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