Thursday, January 22, 2004
Scholars and scoundrels
Distance learning schools are as popular as ever. But who decides which are legit?
By Larry Wills
The explosion in the distance learning industry has created near chaos in how to tell good schools from the bad. Students are stuck with diplomas that no traditional institution will recognize, even though many distance learning schools qualify for student loans. While some schools are shams, others exceed the standards of many campus-based schools. Blame it on a lack of uniform standards and a clubbiness among old-line faculties.
"It's getting to be very vicious competition," says Mike Lambert, head of the Distance Education and Training Council. The Washington, D.C., group has been operating for more than 40 years and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It conducts an onerous 18-month process to accredit distance learning schools.
But Lambert concedes that even when a school qualifies for accreditation, it can be stonewalled for regional recognition by commissions dominated by traditional universities. One school, after repeated rejections for recognition by the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, moved from Florida to Minnesota, where it received full accreditation. "That happens all the time," Lambert says. The practice, Lambert believes, lumps the good schools with the bad and encourages bogus accrediting agencies.
David Boyd, president of William Howard Taft University in Santa Ana, Calif., a school of law and accounting, agrees. He calls the Southern regional association "backward" in its thinking and says a disproportionate number of good distance learning schools are being left out of the process.
"They do operate as a cartel," Boyd says. Some of the schools certified by the distance learning council are pretty good. "Their standards are more stringent than regional standards," Boyd says of the council. "But some of the accreditation criteria don't make a whole lot of sense." For example, distance learning schools are required to have libraries accessible to students, even though they may be thousands of miles away. "There are political issues," Boyd says of the rules.
John Bear, a University of California, Berkeley professor who has been researching bogus schools, calls the accreditation process nearly unworkable. "American accreditation is such a bizarre concept. There are more than 200 accrediting agencies. They don't need it anywhere else." He says overseas institutions are simply licensed by their governments.
But Barbara Cloud, a UNLV professor of communications and a veteran commissioner for the Northwest Association of Universities and Colleges, says the region is receptive to good distance learning schools. "I don't think we have that kind of bias. All regional agencies are looking closely at distance education activity at our units. If they are bona fide, they get looked at. Our accreditation process is a good one."
She concedes there may be preconceptions about the merits of distance education among faculty members. "Probably a typical professor thinks that having a student in the classroom is much preferable to having a student at other end of computer line." But she sees a growing acceptance of the distance learning process as regional associations move toward reciprocity in accrediting schools. The trouble is, the word may not be getting out. "All of education needs to do a better job on what it's about and what its values are," she says. "The public is quite confused on this one."
Lambert believes the situation encourages less-than-reputable associations to issues their own accreditation, confusing students beyond hope. "We have two or three bogus groups in Nevada," he says. "We are the only federally accredited agency solely devoted to institutional teaching at a distance."
The World Association of Universities and Colleges, based in Henderson, has been ridiculed by Bear as a "mail drop," a charge its president, Maxine Asher, vehemently denies. But documents provided by the association indicate its accreditation standards clearly are not uniform. The association lists 47 institutions either as members or accredited members. Some of the schools are in the United States, while others are in Hong King, Costa Rica, Yemen and Kyrgyzstan. School specialties range from management science to bio resonance to acupuncture.
One accredited school, Columbus University in New Orleans, lists a variety of bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs on its website, all of which can be obtained in 12 months at costs ranging from $2,000 to $3,000. The site also has a disclaimer, warning students that they will not be eligible for federal loans and the credits will not be transferable to other schools.
Melinda Wagner, a Columbus spokeswoman, refused to comment on her operation. "I'd like to do research on you before I talk to you," she said.
Other inquiries were even less fruitful. Laureate University in England did not answer an e-mail inquiry, nor did Lucy Han Lee, listed as the president of the Oriental Medical Institute in Hacienda Heights, Calif. A call to her listed phone was answered by a receptionist who said she never heard of the woman or the institute. A final call to the Rev. Sandy Clark, head of the Universal Church of the Master, was answered by a clerk in a Sharper Image store in Campbell, Calif.
Bear says Cambridge State University, accredited by the Henderson-based association, was shut down in Louisiana and then moved to Hawaii, where it's in danger of being shut down again. But Asher calls the assault on Cambridge pure harassment. "Hawaii tortured our schools," she says, noting that Cambridge may close this month. "They're hanging on by their toenails."
Four years ago, the World Association and William Howard Taft University reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the accreditation process. Boyd, in a news release dated May 4, 2000, alleged the association "failed to follow rigid accreditation guidelines," including making on-site inspections of the school.
The release said, "During the course of discovery in connection with the lawsuit, WAUC was unable to provide a single piece of correspondence with the Department of Education, bylaws for the organization or minutes of board meetings. `Most disconcerting,' Boyd indicated, `they were not able to provide any documented evidence they had ever conducted a site visit at any member institution.'"
Boyd recalls: "We first became involved about 10 years ago. It sounded like it had some benefit. We had no recognized accreditation. We were trying to obtain recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. Over the years, we became more suspect."
Asher, who also is president of the American World University of Iowa in Pascagoula, Miss., says the dispute with Boyd was over his refusal to attend an association meeting. "There's nothing wrong with our schools. There are standards." She says 40,000 students are attending the association`s accredited schools in 40 countries. And she insists she provides a valuable service for schools that have nowhere else to go for accreditation.
But she concedes the schools are not for everyone. "If you want teaching credentials or a law degree, it won't be accepted. We're not Harvard, but we're doing the best we can."
Boyd calls flagrant diploma mills a matter for law enforcement, not academics. But the bewildering array of accreditation processes leaves prospective students in the dark. "The average student, even the average educator, doesn't understand how accreditation works. "
Lambert agrees, calling it a "never-ending battle to educate the public." But he's hopeful that pending congressional legislation may help matters in mandating transfers of college credits among bona fide distance learning institutions and traditional schools. "We need to level the playing field for all parties."
Bear sees a fundament examination of higher education as the answer. "We need to look at outcomes, not processes."