Requirements for licensing and/or authorization for educational institutions vary from state to state in the United States. Most states require that a learning institution be certified, authorized and/or accredited in order to award degrees to students. There are some schools out there that do not meet these requirements. In fact, there are several levels of fraud found in some educational programs and "schools." They range from using the student's work history as the "learning" period that earned the degree to simply selling diplomas. These "diploma mills" have been around for decades. Online programs like Degrees-R-Us promise a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in about 10 days. (There is a higher tuition fee if you want to graduate with honors!)
Now, however, there are some states (Oregon, Iowa, and South Dakota) that are cracking down on schools within their borders that grant degrees without any type of approval and legitimate accreditation. There are also some states (Wyoming, Montana, and Hawaii) that allow unaccredited universities to do business as long as they have a physical presence in the state. The problem is that when a state does pass legislation that requires accreditation, those schools simply change addresses (when you don't have a campus, it's not that difficult to move). The question of jurisdiction also comes into play. If the institution has an address in one state but sends out degrees from another state, then which state is responsible for it?
For this reason, the most important thing to check out before you begin any kind of distance learning program is the accreditation the school has, or claims to have. Simply having a statement about being "licensed by the state" isn't an accreditation and may not mean anything at all. There have been many violators that claim accreditation from agencies that either don't exist, have been created by the school itself, or are legitimate agencies but have no record of accreditation for the school. Students who are enrolled or have completed degrees from schools that are not accredited have wasted a lot of time, money, and effort on a degree that may be rejected by potential employers. Credits from schools that are not accredited cannot be transferred to other universities.
There are several state-based and regional accrediting bodies. Each is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
To find out whether the school is truly accredited, contact the appropriate State Department of Higher Education.
Problems with non-accredited schools
Some of these violators have been awarding diplomas and degrees for decades. Courts that have shut them down have cited problems like:
- Too few qualified faculty members to maintain the number of students or level of education
- Too much credit given for previous life and work experience without properly determining the actual level of knowledge
- Not having course objectives
- Awarding Ph.Ds to students who haven't performed the type of research and analysis typically required of such a degree
Basically, the problem relates to the schools having substandard requirements for earned degrees. Some programs even allow students to earn master's or doctoral degrees without having first earned a bachelor's degree.
Play it safe
The best bet is to stick with a known, reputable university or college that is offering online/distance learning. That school's reputation will be at stake so it is more likely to have the same quality online as offline. Of course, there are some good programs from universities that are strictly online. According to an article by a former student at the University of Phoenix Online, many students feel as connected with other students as they would if they were on a campus attending classes in the traditional way.