Diploma mills lure troops with promise of credits for ‘life skills’
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Military education officials are warning servicemembers to avoid bogus education Web sites that already have cheated soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan out of thousands of dollars.
In South Korea, Area I education services specialist Stanley Schultz said soldiers always should consult a counselor before signing up for an online program.
Many education Web sites are “degree mills” — bogus universities that, for a few hundred dollars, will grant a person a degree, he said. Usually, the qualification is based on work experience or “life skills” and doesn’t require the applicant to study or pass tests.
“Naïve” servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan already have been conned, Area I education services officer James Campbell said in this month’s “In The Zone” Warrior Country Moral, Welfare and Recreation guide.
“One servicemember returned [from an overseas tour] with a transcript showing that a bachelor of science degree had been earned with a major in business administration,” Campbell said. “The degree cost the servicemember $800 and [that individual] was not required to take a single course with the institution, yet this person was awarded 124 semester hours of college credit.
“Another servicemember returned with an associate degree in automotive mechanics. Needless to say, these servicemembers were not happy when they learned that the academic institution was not accredited and that the semester hours awarded were not even acceptable for promotion points.”
Names can be deceiving
Campbell said one academic institution that has been exploiting servicemembers is Trinity College & University in Metairie, La.
“Although there are legitimate Trinity academic institutions, this is not one of them. Never sign up for an educational program or course until you have discussed it with your education counselor,” he said, adding that there are at least eight authentic Trinity schools accredited in the American Council of Education guide.
A Trinity College representative, contacted by phone Friday night, declined to comment on the accusations.
Most countries make diploma mills illegal, Schultz said, but they’re not against the law in the United States.
According to an article posted on the San Antonio Express-News Web site April 16, Trinity University has filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking a judge to stop Trinity College & University from using “Trinity” in its name.
“We consider what this entity is doing to be an infringement on our trademark, on the name of Trinity University. The name is very important to the university’s reputation,” spokeswoman Sharon Jones Schweitzer told the newspaper.
“This entity is creating confusion in the higher education community, and we’re tired of it. The confusion diminishes the value of a Trinity University degree.”
Education counselors can quickly check whether an online qualification is legitimate, Schultz said.
“If they come and see me right away, I’m going to know if it is a degree mill. If it is suspicious-sounding at all, I can look it up in the American Council of Education guide of Accredited Institutions of Post Secondary Education,” Schultz said.
Bob Stenard, the supervisory guidance counselor for Marine Corps Bases on Okinawa, agreed that base education officials are critical for servicemembers preparing to embark on a degree.
“And never, never pay for a course or sign anything without checking with us first,” he said. “This is becoming more and more of an issue.”
A group of teachers in the United States had to repay salary increases they received for advanced degrees when officials discovered their master’s degrees were from diploma mills, according to Stenard.
“A lot of folks, apparently, are going to these online schools to get degrees they really haven’t earned,” he said.
Look before you enroll
Stenard says the Marine Corps Community Services education offices on Okinawa processed about 6,500 students seeking tuition assistance at the start of the school term in January. Most were for classes with legitimate schools on the bases, such as the University of Maryland.
But some also were for online courses.
“The key is, we won’t grant assistance to anybody unless the school is listed with the U.S. Department of Education as being fully accredited,” he said.
Schultz said several soldiers have approached him with questions about online qualifications.
“They say they saw this great degree. Usually, these degrees say they are giving huge credit for military experience so you don’t have to do much classroom work,” Schultz said.
Legitimate academic qualifications are accredited and appear in the American Council of Education guide, he said.
“There are two types of accreditation a school can have — national and regional. If it is regionally accredited, a student can transfer credits from that school to any other school. If it is only nationally accredited, the other colleges will probably not accept their credits,” he said.
Most universities will give credit toward the physical education component of a degree for military basic training; some give credit for military course work, Schultz said. For example, soldiers who went to an electrical technical school in the American Council of Education guide as part of their training might get some credit toward a course, he said.
The associate degree in general curriculum, which can be used for promotion points, incorporates virtually any type of military experience but is almost worthless outside the military, he said.
Camp Red Cloud-based University of Maryland University College representative William Parr said he gets numerous e-mails advertising diploma mills.
“When you follow the link, it takes you to a dot-com address which is commercial. It is not an accredited institution. If they are accredited, they will have a ‘.edu’ Web site,” he said.
The existence of degree mills should not discourage soldiers from studying online, Parr said.
One in 10 soldiers studying at Camp Red Cloud is taking online classes, he said.
“Most are upper-level classes because the student body is so diverse here and we can’t offer classroom study at the upper levels,” Parr said.
“Online is fine as long as you make sure you are doing your assignment. If you are dedicated to achieving your goals, it is a viable way to get your education, especially when you are traveling like our military folks are. And it is more flexible to their schedule with time in the field,” he said.
However, Parr said, some degrees require time in the classroom.
“If you are going for a straight academic degree like a history major, where there is not much hands-on required, an online degree will carry as much weight as a classroom degree. But you can’t do a chemistry class online — you have to do the lab work,” he said.
— Stars and Stripes reporter David Allen contributed to this report.
Legitimate online learning
Camp Red Cloud-based University of Maryland University College representative William Parr said there are many universities that provide thousands of real online courses.
His own institution, for example, offers numerous degree paths, as does Central Texas College, which also has an office at Camp Red Cloud.
Other legitimate online course providers include: E-Army University, the University of Phoenix, Troy State University, Touro University, St. Leo University, American Military University, Park University, and Gratham University, Parr said.
If you’re unsure about the status of a university or college, consult your base Army Education Office.
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— Seth Robson