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The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Friday, September 05, 2008

Would You Like a Free Degree With That? The Online University Bait-and-Switch

bait-n-switchHow would you like to earn a doctorate in record time, or a master's degree in less than a year? Sounds great, right? And think of the convenience to you when you discover that you don't even have to look for a university that offers these phenomenal program, they'll come right to you, sometimes while you're interviewing for a job.

If you've spent any time hunting for jobs online, you've probably answered an ad or two that sent you to a company like Career Network, where you had to sign up for an account in order to send your resume to the job poster. I found an ad through Yahoo Hot Jobs for a teaching assistant position at a private school I'd never heard of. Private schools often pay better than public schools, so I tried to apply. I was redirected to www.careernetworkjobs.com and asked to register with the site for my resume to be considered for the job. A little bit of a hassle, but I was willing to spend a few minutes filling out yet another application. I uploaded my resume and, within a few days, Career Network left two garbled messages on my phone about a job interview (from an out-of-state area code) and an email that said, "After reviewing your application we have determined that you meet our initial employment requirements."

I was a little unclear on whether I'd gotten the job or not, so I called the number that left the two cryptic messages and was transferred from New York State to an employment pre-screener in Orlando, who explained that his company was contracted to interview prospective employees and send the best applicants on to the next stage of the interview process. It was like being on a strange game show where the only questions you get asked are your name, address, and "Do you have plans to continue your education?" I confirmed my information and said, sure, I'd love to continue my education if I could afford it, who wouldn't? Not only did this get me to the next round of the interview process, I activated the special bonus round, and the pre-interviewer said,

"You sound like someone who cares a lot about his education, so I tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to transfer you to someone at one of our partner companies who can find an online, accredited university that can offer you financial aid and help you finish your education."


Perhaps I should have been skeptical. I'd never been on a job interview that offered me higher education before, not even on a pre-interview. I certainly liked the sound of what they were offering. I'd exhausted most of my financial aid options getting my bachelor degree, and it was fast approaching the time when Sallie Mae would be asking what her investment in me had produced, aside from an out-of-work English teacher.

A new voice came on the line, and I was introduced to a no-nonsense woman from Education Connection, a company that would find me the perfect online university. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted a degree in. A master's in Psychology? No problem. She found just the school for me, with exactly the program I was looking for, at Capella University. Someone from admissions would be contacting me within the week, she said, and that was the end of the call.

It was a little strange to me that I'd called to interview for a teaching assistant job and somehow ended up applying to an online university, so I googled Capella University to see what I'd gotten myself into. Capella University was, according to my research, an accredited university. They even had a website with an .edu domain, something which most diploma mills, for-profit scam factories that take your money and give you a degree without even pretending to offer a legitimate education, couldn't manage. Was it possible to be an accredited university and still be a scam?

I asked a friend of mine who recently earned a master's degree the hard way, defending her thesis in front of a room full of professors, and she said, "It's been my experience that most online universities aren't taken seriously by the academic community." Keith L., a business professional on Yahoo Answers had this to say about job applicants with online universities on their resumes,

"...Given two applicants were equal, I would almost always give the edge to someone who went to a reputable school over someone [who got a degree from an online university] like Walden University. It’s easily the lowest rung of higher education out there. Maybe someone can create a Tier 5 for them to inhabit."


There are easily thousands of people online who claim to be working hard on their Capella University classes, and others who've earned degrees from online schools like this who believe they worked hard for them, but you'll find just as many students who felt cheated and ripped off by their online school, especially when they find out their school retains faculty that earned their degrees at schools like Lacrosse University, which is fully unaccredited as opposed to merely questionable. Disgruntled students from Capella University report being locked out of their online classrooms for spurious reasons, failing without explanation from their professors, and having additional fees sneak onto their tuition bill after being hounded by snake-oil selling admission counselors day and night to earn a degree at Capella.

It's been over a week since I was "interviewed" for that job, and I've heard nothing from the school that posted the ad, if they ever existed in the first place. On the other hand, I've gotten two or three calls from Capella university every day and just as many emails touting the school's excellent financing options. When I was considering attending the University of South Florida, no one called to try and sell me on the school. When I was thinking about buying a new car, on the other hand, dealers fell over each other to get in touch with me and convince me they had the best financing, but even a used car salesman won't barrage you with phone calls like an online university.

The worst part is that for many people of limited means, online universities dangle the dream of a college degree and full financial aid, never letting on that most employers will consider that degree a joke, even if you did work your tail off for it. Not every online university is a diploma mill, but it's absolutely true that a degree from a university that is entirely based online will not carry the same weight as a traditional degree. And how could they, when the schools that offer them do their recruiting with phony bait-and-switch job ads and daily phone and email spamming until you talk to one of their admission counselors/salespeople?

If you really value your education, do yourself a favor and get an associate degree from your local community college and financial aid through their financial aid counselors. Then apply to a real brick and mortar university as a transfer student. Don't get suckered by free financing and a new set of radial tires.

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