COLLEGE DECREES: AS EASY AS ABCs?
Don’t get caught up in a college’s fancy promises, catalogs, and diplomas. Some smart thinking will help you clear a path toward valuable continuing education.
FIREFIGHTERS HAVE an increasing number of educational opportunities from which to choose. Unfortunately, some of these opportunities may seem too good to be true—and they often are. While some very good colleges offer quality higher education programs for the fire service, others are merely “diploma mills” — they offer degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
The U.S. Department of Education defines a diploma mill as “an organization that awards degrees without requiring its students to meet educational standards for such degrees—it either receives fees from its so-called students on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation, or it makes it possible for the recipients of its degrees to perpetrate fraud on the public.” Diploma mills generally require little, if any, college coursework. Instead, the applicant submits a resume and other materials documenting “life experiences” and other learning experiences and pays the college the cost of the evaluation process. In one case this fee was S 1,300 for a bachelor’s degree, $1,800 for a master’s degree, and more than $3,500 for a doctorate degree. The entire degree could, in theory, be based on the experiences the student claims to have had.
Traditional college degree programs may require more work, but the degree will likely be more respected. Diploma mills, on the other hand, may require much less of the “students.” In one case, serving as a volunteer firefighter qualified for at least partial fulfillment of doctoral degree requirements at a diploma mill. Other examples of mill degree requirements include chairing a committee, becoming an emergency medical technician, and teaching a class.
CHECK ACCREDITATION CAREFULLY
How do you know if a college is right for you? One way to check out a college’s credentials is by checking its accreditation. An accredited college has been examined by a panel of impartial experts and been found to meet certain specified standards of higher education. To become accredited, a school applies to an accrediting agency. The agency conducts a preliminary investigation to determine if the school and its programs are legitimate. At this point the school may be granted correspondent status. After a period of time, a team of experts familiar with academics, finance, planning, curriculum, and other areas visits the school. In time, the school may receive “candidate for accreditation” status, which means the school is probably worthy of accreditation but the accrediting association wants to monitor it a little longer. After this period of monitoring, the school may become accredited.
Accreditation is not a cure-all or a guarantee of the college’s authenticity. The accrediting agency itself must also be authentic and relevant to your program. For example, say you plan on attending a college to earn a bachelor of science degree in emergency medical technology, and the college is accredited by the fictitious International Safety Consultants of North America, Inc., which has been granted consulting status by the United Nations General Assembly. This may sound impressive to your peers and relatives, but the accrediting organization in this example is not related to the emergency medical profession, and your college work may not transfer to a college that does have legitimate regional accreditation. It is not unheard of for people on the college board of directors to also serve as directors of the proprietary accrediting agency.
Some states do not have laws governing accrediting agencies. Therefore, it is possible for a person to start a diploma mill next door to a private accrediting agency. The “ABC Accrediting Agency” could then accredit “XYZ College of North America,” and “XYZ College of North America” could immediately advertise it is awarding fully accredited college degrees to its students. The diploma mill and the accrediting agency could even have the same owner.
Standards may vary among private accrediting agencies. During the fall of 1988, William L. Webster, the state attorney general of Missouri, acquired a temporary restraining order against one such agency that accredited schools, colleges, and theological seminaries internationally. His office set up a mock university for one day, called the Eastern Missouri Business College, for the purpose of inviting the accrediting commission’s inspection. According to Attorney General Webster, “We purposefully made our college handbook outrageous so even a minimal review would have raised serious questions about the school, but the ‘commission’ accepted our $880 and accredited our college with no reservations.”1
The college handbook fabricated by the attorney general’s office included the names of supposed advisory board members such as television characters Eddie Haskell, Arnold Ziffel, and Moe and Jerome Howard and Lawrence Fine (the “Three Stooges”). The college’s library included the “marine biology” text The Little Golden Book of Fishes. The Latin motto of the college was “Solum Pro Avibus Est Educatio,” which means “Education Is for the Birds.”2
After its visit, the “international commission” accredited the college, which was located in a 10-by10-foot office.3 “We are definitely concerned about this firm, which claims to be a commission that evaluates post-secondary educational institutions,” Webster says, “and the attorney general’s office intends to make sure that the alleged activities of this accrediting commission and diploma mills do not tarnish this state’s image.”
Webster’s investigation revealed the commission has accredited 130 colleges and universities, nine of which are in Missouri. The attorney general is currently investigating at least three diploma mills operating in the state of Missouri.
The U.S. Department of Education (a public agency) and the Council on PostSecondary Education (a private agency), both located in Washington, D.C., evaluate accrediting agencies, including regional accrediting associations (for colleges and universities) and professional associations (for programs or departments within a college). If a college is accredited, all of its programs generally are also. Professional associations may also accredit specific programs. For example, the American Dental Association may accredit the dental hygiene degree program at “XYZ College,” but this accreditation does not apply to the entire college.
If you are seeking an accredited college or university, only the words “accredited” and “fully accredited” (often used interchangeably) mean the college is accredited. Some other terms used in college literature include “recognized,” “licensed,” “fully approved,” and “approved by the United States government.” But who “recognized” the school? Is it the janitor or the wife of the college president? “Licensed” may mean the college has a business or vendor’s license for the school bookstore from the county tax collector. “Fully approved” may mean the state has inspected the college and has found it worthy of granting degrees. “Approved by the U.S. government” could mean a number of things. None of these terms means accredited, and if you plan on transferring to another degree program at another college that requires previous learning to be at an accredited institution, be sure the education you receive is transferrable.
Accreditation is not the only means of checking out a program. In fact, a new legitimate college program may currently be only a candidate for accreditation but may suit your educational needs. You may also want to check with employers to see if they recognize a particular degree program. Or check with the local Better Business Bureau or the department of higher education in your state to see if any complaints have been lodged against the college. Don’t be afraid to ask college personnel such direct questions as “What is the size of your faculty?” “Where did faculty members obtain their degrees?” and “Can I see some of the master’s theses of your students?” You can also ask to speak with students or graduates and to visit the entire campus. Most important, never judge a college by its slick, professional-looking catalog. A diploma mill can have fancy catalog printed just as easily as a legitimate college can. Sometimes the photo on the front of the catalog isn’t even of a building affiliated with the college!
NONTRADITIONAL LEARNING PAYS OFF
Some diploma mills give college credit for nontraditional or experiential learning. Many traditional accredited colleges offer the same, although they do not prominently advertise it. You can earn legitimate credit for a particular course through “credit by certification,” “portfolio examination,” and “proficiency examinations.”
Firefighters can earn college credit by certification by taking equivalent courses at the National Fire Academy and state fire academy as well as other comprehensive noncollege courses. For example, by becoming a certified fire safety inspector and actively working in the position, you can earn college credit for a fire prevention course. By completing Arson I, II, and III you can get credit by certification for a fire investigation course. The list is endless, considering the number of quality continuing education programs available. However, most colleges limit the number of credits they will award for nontraditional learning.
Portfolio examination involves reading the course descriptions in a college catalog to determine what experience you have that is comparable. For example, I received credit toward my bachelor’s degree for a course on public administration because I served as fire chief for five years, taught courses in administration, and interacted with public administrators and government agencies.
Proficiency examinations allow you to demonstrate that you have acquired college-level knowledge through reading, independent knowledge, and experience. The cost is often very low and the examination is similar to the one given at the end of a regular course. Proficiency examinations are more often available for courses that are unrelated to fire science, such as English, business, natural sciences, and social sciences.
WHERE TO BEGIN
Start by looking at nearby community colleges that have fire science programs. Colleges often schedule classes one night a week to accommodate working people. Typical programs at two-year colleges are designed to fit the needs of volunteer, part-time, or fulltime firefighters as well as students not yet in the fire service.
Such classes are considered part of a resident college program. This does not mean you must live on campus, but rather you are taking regularly scheduled courses on campus or at a satellite campus. I recommend this type of program because you can interact with the instructor and peer firefighters/class members. You can learn how other departments operate and how they solve similar problems. Other advantages include low cost, job placement opportunities, and flexible class attendance policies.
Another program is the external degree program. Typically designed for adult students, these classes (called group meetings) meet less often than resident college classes. When registering for an external degree course, the student often signs a “learning contract” with the instructor, which specifies what each party expects to gain from the course. You do maintain regular contact with the instructor in person or by telephone. Students taking such courses may also take regular classroom courses to fulfill degree requirements.
The third type of program is independent study, which is often associated with degree programs available by mail (or computer), although college resident programs also offer selected independent study courses. The Open Learning Fire Service Program, an excellent example of independent study, allows you to fulfill the second two years of your bachelor’s degree at participating colleges and universities. One problem with independent study is that you must establish a study schedule and stick to it, because you may or may not have regular contact with the instructor, depending on the institution and program you choose.
Students who have already taken a number of general education courses or National Emergency Training Center courses or who wish to custom-design a degree have an additional option. Colleges such as the Regents College of the University of the State of New York and Thomas A. Edison College in Princeton, N.J., can tailor a program to suit your specific career interests. Courses at the National Emergency Training Center, National Fire Academy, and other locations evaluated by the American Council on Education may transfer to the Regents College. You can earn an accredited bachelor of science degree in liberal arts with a block of study in fire science, disaster planning, or other areas. In this block of study up to one-half of the total hours might be in free electives designed around your interests. You may also transfer part of your first degree to the Regents College to fulfill requirements for a second degree. Your diploma will not state that your degree is in a specific major, but your academic record at the Regents College will show you completed a specific block of study in one specialized area.
The Regents College and Thomas Edison College do not actually offer courses on campus. Students take approved coursework at other accredited institutions and transfer them to the college, which custom-designs the degree. The courses you take may be resident classes, external degree courses, or independent study. You can also take various tests to be exempt from courses and receive the appropriate college credit.
WHAT PROGRAM IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
In my career I have taken courses in residence, external degree, and independent study programs. I prefer residence programs, because adults learn best by doing, and a well-organized college classroom gives you an oportunity to interact with other adults, peer firefighters, and knowledgeable faculty. My second choice would be small group study in an external degree program. I recommend an independent study program only to highly motivated people who can establish and stick to a study routine (which is sometimes easier said than done). Also, if you are planning to teach, many educators prefer that you have a degree from a resident program rather than an independent study program.
Paying $3,500 or so to attend a diploma mill and receive a doctor of philosophy degree may impress your friends in the short run, but if you misrepresent your degree to an employer as being accredited by a legitimate accrediting agency, you could possibly lose a job or promotion if caught. Worse yet, you could pay your tuition, only to have the mill shut down by the state attorney general or Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some states have specific laws requiring colleges to offer some sort of instruction. In Missouri, for example, state law “bars institutions from issuing phony academic degrees for which students do little or no academic work.” But the law does not apply to colleges or universities with religious affiliations.
Missouri is currently taking a closer look at many of its colleges. Attorney General Webster got a temporary restraining order in October of 1988 against one alleged diploma mill and is currently investigating three other alleged mills operating in Missouri. One university against which he has taken action allegedly “lists false credentials for its fictitious faculty, claims falsely that on-campus courses take place at the university, and claims accreditation by a fictitious accrediting association and is not accredited by any bona fide accrediting association,” among other allegations.4 Unfortunately, some diploma mills move to another state once they are caught, so beware of where you spend your education dollars.
The program you ultimately select depends on convenience and what you expect to gain in furthering your education. If you want a good education, choose a reputable degree program. If you are not sure about a particular college, use the guidelines discussed to help you evaluate the program. Remember, what you get out of a college degree program will be proportional to the effort you put into it. Use your time and money wisely to further your education—your future may depend on it.
To find out where the closest college fire science program is, send three 25c stamps along with your name and address to Lee Silvi, 9564 Graystone Ln., Mentor, OH 44060. I will send you addresses of colleges with fire science programs in your state, along with the addresses for the Regents College, Open Learning Fire Service Program, U.S. Department of Education, and others.
‘William L. Webster, “Webster Shuts Down Mail-Order School, Sues Accrediting Firm,” press release, Jefferson City, MO. October 26, 1988, page 2.
2Virginia Hick, “Phony College ‘Stings’-Accrediting Office Accused of Fraud,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 27, 1988, page 1.
3Hick, page 6A.
4Webster, pages 4-5.