Looking at colleges on the Web? Let the buyer beware

A growing number of Internet universities are setting up in Hawaii. Butnot all are valid schools.

People who clicked on the Web site of American State University may have thought they had entered an academic paradise.

The school, registered in Hawaii, promised that students could earn a bachelor's degree or PhD online. Degrees that normally cost tens of thousands of dollars would only set applicants back $5,000 or less. And rather than slaving away in dank libraries, students could get their degree from the comfort of their own home.

Too good to be true?

The State of Hawaii thought so. It sued American State University for violating state disclosure laws and implying that the school was accredited. According to Jeffrey Brunton, an attorney in the state Office of Consumer Protection, the school was nothing more than two men taking in cash and handing out diplomas. The school has now shut down.

But it was only one of a rapidly growing number of institutes of higher education hawking easy degrees on the Web. While exact numbers are hard to discern, experts say there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such schools awarding degrees.

"It's like wildfire on the lawn of Academe," says Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington. "The Internet has rekindled the old-fashioned diploma mill."

Age-old industry

Dubious degrees are nothing new. In Renaissance England, there was a brisk trade in fake diplomas from Oxford and Cambridge. After the University of Chicago launched the first correspondence courses early this century, imitations cropped up, giving such courses a bad name.

But the Internet has proven a perfect vehicle for degree programs that carry little weight in the job market. Web sites that cost less than $100 per month have replaced expensive traditional print and television advertising and have enabled just about anyone to hang out a shingle as a place of higher learning.

Furthermore, the Internet augments the ability of these schools to operate across borders and to reach millions of potential students quickly and easily, including foreigners that want a US degree.

These schools tend to register in lightly regulated states. Hawaii, where anyone with a business license can award degrees, is considered the capital of these schools.

"They look for something more than no laws at all," says John Bear, author of Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally. "If they can file some registration, no evaluation involved, then they can say we are fully chartered in that state."

In Hawaii there are now about 120 of these schools registered, a major increase from even a year ago. "A lot of people call from all over the world that are interested in setting up a school here," says JoAnn Uchida, executive director of Hawaii's Office of Consumer Protection.

Ms. Uchida says that under the current state law there is little that can be done to stop the schools, most of which have no greater physical presence in Hawaii than a mailbox and an empty office. "The majority do not have a campus. They do not have any employees here," she says.

Although it is clearly caveat emptor with schools incorporated in Hawaii and other loosely regulated states, the true nature of these institutions is often easy to discern. Egregious misspellings and grammatical errors on Web sites are common (On the Web site of one school, the word university is misspelled in big capital letters).

Many of the schools offer flat - and suspiciously low - fees for degrees that range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Most offer discounts for multiple degrees or two-for-one deals. Some even make ridiculous claims, like one now-defunct Louisiana diploma mill that offered a doctorate in less than a month.

"These schools are convenient for people if they want their degree fast and they don't want to work," says Mr. Lambert.

Dazed and confused

Still, some naive students get fooled. "There is a real belief that an 'edu' suffix is an assurance that you are for real. But anybody on earth can get one," says Bear.

Louisiana is cracking down on easy-degree schools, and the Hawaii Legislature is considering a new law that would impose some additional requirements on these schools. "This doesn't mean this is going to end, it just means they will continue to circumvent the law. Or they are going to go somewhere else," says Bear, who has notices schools popping up in South Dakota.

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