Affordable Degrees Website
Check out the fun text on Rochville University’s Web site. Red flags, anyone? Screen shot of Rochville University's webpage
The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited online universities you can access through its Web site. Screen shot of Ed.gov webpage
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Back when many of us old-timers got into police work, departments typically required a high school diploma. In many of the better-paid departments, some college time was required, and in a few places, a college degree was the price of admission. Over the years, expectations have risen, and it’s now pretty common for departments to require a bachelor’s degree. In many places, if you want to get promoted beyond first-line supervisor, you better have a master’s degree. Many chiefs have graduate degrees, and it’s not unheard of for a doctorate or a juris doctor (law degree) to be attached to a law enforcement professional’s name. Times have changed, and expectations for both education and specialization have grown.
For those of us interested in teaching at the college level, say in a police academy academic program or maybe a criminal-justice degree program, a bachelor’s degree is a must, and a master’s degree is far preferred. For full-time status at a community college, a master’s degree is usually mandatory, and full-time faculty at four-year institutions usually must have, or at least be close to attaining, a doctorate.
In other words, there is an absolute demand for degreed credentials in many aspects of law enforcement and criminal justice.
Who Has the Time or Money?
Of course, the major problem with this demand is that many of us are now adult learners, and that has ramifications above and beyond the andragogical issues that we sometimes discuss in our train-the-trainer classes on adult learning theory. Generally, we all work for a living, or we have family responsibilities, or part-time/full-time businesses or any number of other commitments that make it difficult for us to go to school.
In the traditional higher-education model, students attend classes at a brick-and-mortar school. Full-time attendance usually means at least three or four classes each term or semester, and part-time attendance is generally defined (for student-loan purposes) as at least two classes—six credits—each term. Such a schedule in and of itself can really drain a student’s time, and when you add in the requirement to travel to a specific location within a specific time frame, and to do so for months (or actually years, in most cases), the demands in time and energy required to earn a traditional college degree can prove overwhelming.
The Distance-Learning Option
The explosion of the Internet as a resource and means of service delivery has meant that distance learning has become a viable alternative for many who can’t make the commitment in scheduled time to earn a traditional degree. There are any number of distance-learning colleges and universities to choose from, and several different delivery models.
Of course, the first issue you must resolve is the legitimacy of whatever online degree and institution you are considering (more on this later). Assuming for a moment that a potential distance learner has chosen wisely, online education is an absolutely legitimate and credible undertaking. Not only are there many excellent online institutions, but many brick-and-mortar universities have developed distance-learning components. In some of these traditional settings, you can combine on-campus credits with online credits in order to fulfill degree requirements. In others, you earn most or all of the degree requirements through distance learning.
Distance Learning Difficulties
Perhaps the greatest difficulty encountered by distance-learning students involves self-discipline. When we were young students, it was essentially our “job” to go to school. It’s what we did, and we did it for 12 years or so. Many of us then went on to college soon after high school, so we were still in student mode. We had OK study habits (most of us, anyway), and we had few conflicting commitments.
It’s now years later, and many of us are burdened by family, job and other obligations. Couple that with the time that has passed since we were in school, and what you can end up with is a difficult situation in which a distance learner has trouble getting things done and moving forward with their education.
Distance learning is, by definition, done outside the normal reach of the academic environment, or at least on its fringes. Many times there is no hard timetable for completion of assignments, and no schedule for classes. Distance learning is frequently self-paced. This requires a discipline in time management and goal orientation that many adult learners don’t have.
Additionally, by nature many adult learners are oriented toward learning things with an immediate pay-off. Wading through the theory and philosophy of a subject can be pretty abstract, and many adult learners express a need for more concrete connections between what they are learning and their perceived need for information.
Another problem: cost. Many online universities are private institutions, and the tuition can be high. Again, many of those preexisting conditions that impact a learner’s ability to schedule their education also have a financial aspect; simply put, it’s difficult for many adult learners to find the additional money in their budget to pay for an online education from a private institution. Fortunately, there are some financial-aid options available, and most legitimate online universities are eligible for funding, and can help distance learners secure student loans and other financial assistance.
Make Sure It’s Legitimate
There are hundreds of illegitimate “universities” online, each offering all manner of “degrees.” While these degrees might look good on the wall, they will have no credibility in most circles, and the very fact that a person advertises it can often call into question that individual’s ethical standards, work ethic and credibility. This is especially problematic for criminal-justice professionals, whose very livelihood relies on the perception that they are ethical and credible.
The good news: Numerous accredited institutions offer degrees in a variety of fields, and there’s been significant growth in the number of online institutions catering to the criminal-justice professions. The legality and validity of degrees granted by legitimate online universities is not in question, although professionally, some uninformed individuals may question the credibility and thoroughness of such an education. In order to meet these doubts head on, potential online students must be certain that the institution they choose is fully accredited by a recognized accrediting organization.
Accreditation—What Is It?
Diploma mills and other illegitimate sources of degrees have gotten quite sophisticated over the past few years. Once upon a time, the test of whether an institution was legitimate or not was whether it was accredited. In this context, accreditation refers to the acknowledgment that the institution meets standards set by an accrediting agency or organization. In the past, most legitimate institutions—brick and mortar or online—were accredited, and most illegitimate institutions were not.
It’s now much more difficult to tell the difference. Realizing that the test for legitimacy was accreditation, many illegitimate diploma mills gained “accreditation” from very legitimate sounding organizations. There’s no doubt these organizations granted accreditation to these “schools,” but their own legitimacy is questionable. In effect, the diploma industry created its own accrediting organizations to grant legitimate-sounding accreditation to illegitimate institutions. In this way, they can honestly say they have received accreditation.
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of accrediting organizations like this. Most sound very legitimate: the Board of Online Universities Accreditation, the Higher Education Accreditation Commission, the World Online Education Accrediting Commission, and the International Council for Open and Distance Education are just a few of the grandiose and official titles that one can find “accrediting” illegitimate institutions.
Is there a way to break through this double layer of illegitimacy? Fortunately, yes. There’s a network of agencies approved by either the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE), or both. These two organizations do not actually accredit individual institutions, but they do approve the national and regional agencies that do. The Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of accrediting agencies that meet criteria established by the USDE (although only organizations that apply are considered). The CHEA, on the other hand, is the non-governmental coordinating agency that reviews and approves accrediting agencies.
There are two types of accreditation: Institutional and specialized, or programmatic. Institutional accreditation means that the entire institution, such as a university, meets accrediting standards. Specialized or programmatic accreditation means that some element of an institution meets a certain standard. This can apply to a program, a department or a school that is part of an institution.
The CHEA recognizes six regional accrediting bodies:
• The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
• The Middle States Commission on Higher Education
• The New England Association of Schools and Colleges
• The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
• The Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Additionally, the USDE provides a comprehensive list of national institutional and specialized accrediting organizations at www.ed.gov (under Quick Click on the left-hand side of the page, click “Select a Topic” and choose “Accreditation”). Credential Watch has posted a list of non-recognized accreditation agencies
(www.credentialwatch.org/non/agencies.shtml), although this is not an official list and may not be up-to-date. The wisest course of action? Check the USDE list and consider any organization that isn’t included as questionable and one that requires more investigation.
Identifying a Questionable Online School
It can prove difficult to tell the difference between quality distance-learning institutions and the diploma mills because the proprietors of the mills often go to great lengths to appear legitimate. Although there is no hard and fast rule for automatically identifying an institution as a diploma mill, there are several indicators that, when present, strongly indicate a possible problem.
Typically, you can’t tell by a cursory examination of an institution’s Web site whether or not it is legitimate. In fact, some diploma-mill Web sites look amazingly professional. There typically is one clear indicator of a possible problem, however—a lack of contact information. Many illegitimate institutions will post minimal contact information, and sometimes almost none at all. They frequently won’t list an actual physical address or telephone number. Some institutions only allow contact via e-mail or a fax number. That way, they avoid having to actually talk to a potential student and answer their questions. They can bob and weave behind the mask of an e-mail address, and can receive documents via a non-descript fax number.
A second indicator: a low comparative charge for tuition. For example, some diploma mills charge only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for a degree. As any parent of a college student can tell you, this runs far below what a legitimate education costs. When you factor in the private nature of many online institutions, the cost can go even higher. A quick review of Web sites for a couple legitimate online institutions (Capella University and Walden University) indicates tuition can run as high as $50,000 for an undergraduate degree, $18,000 for a master’s and more than $75,000 for a doctorate. Considering these numbers, an offer of a Ph.D. for $199 should cause some red flags to go up.
Perhaps the single most-significant indicator: When degrees are promised with little or no academic work required. While some legitimate universities give credit for life experience (usually related to your chosen discipline) and often allow credit by examination in certain classes, the granting of a degree with no academic requirements is clearly the granting of a meaningless piece of paper.
Consider the screenshot pulled from www.affordabledegrees.com on the left. The fun text found on the institution’s home page—e.g., “no studies,” “no attendance,” “no examinations,” etc.—sends up big red flags. A further examination of Rochville University (on both the Affordabledegrees Web site and the Rochville site at www.rochvilleuniversity.org) indicates it’s accredited by two organizations not listed as approved by the USDE or the CHEA: the Board of Online Universities Accreditation and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation. Additionally, the Affordabledegrees Web site lists these organizations as part of a list of several accrediting agencies, including the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and others that are legitimate. Although the site does not actually claim accreditation by North Central, there is a clear inference to be drawn from the way the list is presented (see www.affordabledegrees.com/ada/accreditation.asp).
Some online institutions have been shut down by the courts following legal action brought by state governments. Example: Columbia Pacific University (CPU), of Novato, Calif. CPU was founded in 1978 as a private, non-accredited correspondence school, offering different levels of “degrees,” including doctorates. After first allowing CPU to operate, the State of California reviewed and denied CPU’s application for a license, stating that CPU had “awarded excessive credit for prior experiential learning to many students,” “failed to employ duly qualified faculty” and “failed to meet various requirements for issuing Ph.D. degrees.” After losing all appeals, CPU moved to Montana, but closed about a year later.
By the way, diploma mills have developed one more layer of deceit. Some illegitimate institutions offer both faked transcripts and verification services. For an additional fee, the institution will provide you with an artificial transcript of your “grades” and a contact number you can give to someone that wants to verify your academic credentials. When they call for “verification,” it is cheerfully given.
Credibility & Acceptance
Legitimate degrees from properly accredited online institutions are just as valid as any other degree from a brick-and-mortar institution. However, depending on your field of study or the purpose to which you intend to put your degree, you may encounter problems. Some state licensing authorities may question your degree. Additionally, professional degrees, such as medical and law degrees, must meet even more stringent standards. You can probably overcome most stumbling blocks, but it will prove more difficult for you to meet some requirements than a holder of a degree from a well-known brick-and-mortar school.
Another issue sometimes arises in the academic field. Whether right or wrong, there’s a significant perception on the part of many academics that online degrees are not as credible as traditional degrees. There may be some validity to this, depending on the situation. After all, most doctoral programs at traditional schools require residency, with immersive involvement on the part of the candidate. Daily interaction with professors and others, as well as time spent teaching undergraduate classes, can be an important learning component for a doctoral candidate. It’s reasonable that academic professionals steeped in this tradition may remain reticent to fully accept an online degree. If you intend to seek full-time university faculty employment, this may be an issue you will have to address.
Many of the degrees offered by online institutions require some on-campus time. Typically conducted several times during a learner’s education, the on-campus time may last for a week or two each time. This more stringent requirement is an important element in these schools’ programs, and is, at least in part, an attempt to impart some degree of traditional immersion to the student. Whether the time frame is appropriate or not is beyond the scope of this article.
Why Do You Want a Degree?
If you seek an advanced degree in order to develop better credentials that will provide you with the means to seek out and gain new employment, or to get a promotion or other advancement at your current job, a legitimate online degree may meet your needs. Take great care in selecting an institution, making sure there is no question regarding the accreditation of the school you choose.
Pursue your degree with the same focus and intensity that you would a traditional degree, striving for academic excellence in each aspect of your coursework. If you’re seeking a doctorate, choose a viable and compelling dissertation topic, do thorough and competent research and do a professional job of completing your dissertation document.
If you intend to rely upon your degree to bolster your credibility as an expert witness or other consulting undertaking, you must not cut any corners in your academic preparation. Remember: You may have to defend your choice of an online, distance learning education, sometimes to the uninformed, and sometimes to the misinformed.
Once you’ve completed your work and have earned your degree, carry it with pride. And congratulations on a very significant accomplishment!
Stay safe, and wear your vest.
Online Criminal Justice Programs
The following institutions offer various types on online education for criminal-
justice professionals. Note: It’s not a complete list, and again, you must thoroughly review the accreditation credentials of any institution before you sign up.
American Public University
Bellevue University (B.S. in Criminal Justice Administration)
California University of Pennsylvania
Columbia Southern University
DeVry University (Bachelor of Technical Management, Criminal Justice)
Liberty University (B.S. in Criminal Justice)
Mountain State University (B.S. in Administration of Criminal Justice)
Northcentral University Criminal Justice
Northwestern University Center for Public Safety
Nova Southeastern University
Portland State University (B.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice)
Saint Leo University
Southern New Hampshire University (M.S. in Justice Studies)
University of Cincinnati
(M.S. in Criminal Justice)