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Check out online degree program before enrolling

Thursday, July 28, 2011 - 10:05 am

This is a consumer advice column written by the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana. It appears Thursdays in Business.

Many people would like to advance their education. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way – family, jobs, etc. – and makes going back to school impossible.

Suppose those life experiences could become credits toward a degree? I've always had a hankering to be known as “Dr. Stephens,” but just don't have the time or commitment to pursue a Ph.D. Not to worry – one online university will award me a doctorate based on my:

• Prior job experience in any field

• Military training

• Employer-sponsored training and workshops

• Participation in professional and nonprofessional organizations

• Personal goals, lifestyle, hobbies and traveling

I can get my sheepskin in seven days for $1,149. There's a 100 percent money-back guarantee if I'm not approved, but I would guess that never happens.

Many people are scammed by Internet-based “diploma mills” that offer them the opportunity to get high school, bachelor's and advanced degrees with little or no effort. But you may run into trouble with legitimate schools you want to attend or with employers when they find out your degree is bogus.

A person wanting to attend a culinary school didn't have the high school diploma required. She found a school online, paid $250, took a few simple tests and got her diploma a week later. That allowed her to qualify for a federal student loan to enter the culinary school. When they found out her diploma was bogus, she was forced to withdraw. At first the school refused to refund her tuition so she could repay the loan, but later relented and gave her the money back.

There are legitimate distance-learning and online-based degree programs. Check out any educational institution with the BBB and bona fide accrediting organizations. Watch out for these red flags of a diploma mill:

• Degrees or diplomas are awarded based on “life experience” and require very little or no work.

• The institution guarantees you'll receive a degree or diploma within a few days, weeks or months.

• The institution offers deals if you sign up to receive more than one degree at a time, such as bachelor's and master's degrees, for one low price.

• The cost is per degree rather than per credit hour.

To be fair, an online degree was the only option for one prospective student. A cat owner wanted his pet to get a high school diploma. He paid the online school's $200 fee and described the cat's life experiences, which included being rescued from a ditch when she was a teeny ball of fluff. Shortly thereafter, the cat became a proud high school graduate. Problem is, the cat owner's children wanted to take the same shortcut!

Marjorie Stephens is the communications director for the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana. Before you make a purchase, go to the BBB website at
or call 423-4433 or toll-free 1-800-552-4631 to check out a business.