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The Internet has made it possible for degree mills and unaccredited colleges to operate on a much wider scale than ever before. Students looking for a convenient way to get a bachelors or masters degree, or even a doctorate, need to be very careful in choosing programs. Fortunately there are simple guidelines you can follow to protect yourself.
First, a few definitions. Degree Mills are those schools that sell you degrees for money or for money and a tiny amount of work. Your spam filter probably receives a few of these offers each month, explaining how you can buy a degree, including transcripts, and get instant career advancement--until someone checks your credentials and you see your name in the daily paper. One school I explored offered me an M.D. based on a two page letter I sent explaining my knowledge of medicine. I could get the full diploma and transcripts if I sent them $5000. The school explained that I could not use this M.D. to practice medicine, but otherwise it was a real degree, in their opinion.
Unaccredited schools come in many forms. The problem, from a consumer's point of view, is that a school can be accredited by a recognized agency, and yet the degree can still be without much value. How can that be?
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American Regional Accreditation
The gold standard of accreditation in the US is regional accreditation. Six regional associations are approved by CHEA, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. These are North Central, Southern, Northwest, Middle States, Western, and New England. Almost all American colleges are accredited by one of these bodies, which follow similar procedures. They accept each other's degrees and credits. Normally, when people talk about accredited schools, they mean schools accredited by one of these organizations.
CHEA recognizes other accrediting organizations that accredit Bible schools, trade schools, and other types of schools. Colleges and universities recognized by the regional accrediting bodies take a variety of positions with respect to the credits issued by these other types of colleges that have been accredited by these other agencies. Some regionally accredited colleges keep lists of Bible schools they respect and will take their credits directly. Other regionally accredited schools will accept such credits provisionally, based on the performance of a student in his or her first year of work.
The big test is whether employers or graduate schools will recognize your education. You can read the CHEA website for more wisdom on these issues.
There also exist accrediting agencies that are not recognized by CHEA or by the US federal government. Sometimes a degree mill will operate its own accrediting agency with a suitably noble sounding name. Sometimes unaccredited schools will put up a smoke screen of other credentials.
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The smoke screen
Given the scope of this problem, you would think that CHEA and other organizations, such as state education agencies, would provide a constantly updated list of phony schools. They don't for two reasons: the list changes constantly, and they don't want the legal hassle.
You should always look for evidence of accreditation by one of the six regional accrediting agencies. If it's not there, the degree is very likely going to be a problem for employers and useless if you want to apply for graduate study at a regionally accredited college or university.
Unaccredited schools often provide an impressive list of other credentials. Often that list includes approval by a state post-secondary licensing agency. Or a state or city business license. A state license to operate a school is not the same as regional accreditation. This has been a sore issue for decades, because many states have very elementary systems for issuing special business licenses to schools, and those schools sometimes try to pass off that business license as an accreditation. Universities that prey on foreign students are particularly adept at this maneuver.
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Why does this matter?
You may be inclined to raise philosophical questions about what constitutes a good education and why certain organizations, with the approval of CHEA, which is approved by the federal government, can rule the roost.
In the end, if you care about education, you can educate yourself. So it should be possible for you to get a good education at any school that actually offers courses that are taught by people with good educations themselves.
College accreditation procedures guarantee that a school has adequate resources and faculty to deliver good courses.
Or to put it very practically, only those schools that are regionally accredited will give you a diploma that will certainly be recognized by good employers and good graduate schools.
Besides, while there may be new colleges that are striving to become regionally accredited and that are doing very good work indeed, there are also total fakes out there and odd places where everyone on the college faculty has the same last name and they have all earned their degrees at that college.
It doesn't take long to blow the smoke away and determine whether an online school has regional accreditation. Take the time to investigate and don't be taken in by substitutes.