Recently, a friend of mine who received her bachelor’s degree from Westwood College was shocked to discover that she did not qualify for the master’s degree program at a national university.
The reason? Her bachelor’s degree was considered bogus because Westwood College is not regionally accredited. In fact, Westwood College is only nationally accredited.
Other Westwood alumni have also been surprised to discover that their degrees are considered useless by employers; as a result, some of these alumni have sued Westwood. In January of 2012, the Illinois State Attorney General also filed a lawsuit against Westwood, stating that the school’s (which is actually run by several corporations as a “DBA”) “many misrepresentations or false promises to Illinois students and prospective students constitute violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act”.
What is accreditation?
In order to be considered legitimate, post-secondary schools in the U.S. must be accredited by a government-recognized accreditation agency. The two big accreditation categories are national and regional. National accreditation is currently applied to non-traditional schools such as online or distance learning universities. Regional accreditation, meanwhile, has typically been applied to liberal arts schools that operate in a more traditional sense (e.g., use in-class instruction).
There are six regional accreditation agencies, with each agency covering a given geographic region in the U.S. You can check if your school of choice is accredited by one of these regional agencies by finding out where the school is located and then going to the specific regional agency that would be in charge of that school’s accreditation.
Overall, regional accreditation is much more valuable than national; also, a school that passes regional accreditation will typically have no trouble gaining national accreditation. The reverse is not true. Furthermore, so-called “diploma mill” schools fail to achieve either regional or both regional and national accreditation.
What is a diploma mill?
Westwood College, alongside other institutions such as the University of Northern Washington and Monticello University, is what is popularly termed a “diploma mill” or “degree mill.” According to the FTC, a diploma mill is defined as the following: “a company that offers ‘degrees’ or certificates for a flat fee, requires little course work, if any, and awards degrees based solely on life experience.”
Furthermore, “although many diploma mills claim to be ‘accredited,’ their accreditation is from a bogus, but official-sounding agency that they created.” This fits the bill for my own personal diploma mill of choice, Ashwood University (which actually operates out of Pakistan). I decided to check out Ashwood’s website one night and even chat with one of its customer service representatives. Here’s a synopsis of my chat:
Please wait for a Site Operator to respond!
Info : You are now Chatting with Angelo Parker.
Angelo Parker : How may I help you?
Halina: I’m looking at a degree in biology
Angelo Parker : Sure. How many years of working experience you have in the field?
Halina: I took some high school biology
Angelo Parker : I see.
Angelo Parker : So you want to study or you need a degree based on your experience?
Halina: what courses do you offer? I’m hoping to get a bachelor’s in biology so I can eventually start a Ph.D.
Angelo Parker : Well this is a life experience degree program. We award you the degree on the basis of your working experience and past qualifications. What we do is we take down your life experience and convert them into credit hours.
If these credit hours are equivalent to the credit hours that are required to complete your desired degree then you qualify and we award the degrees accordingly.
Angelo Parker : So there are no courses or classes with us
Halina: OK, but then is this legit for a Ph.D. program at a school like Northwestern?
Halina: I forgot to mention that I did work as a lab tech for a few years. But I don’t have a BS or BA in biology
Angelo Parker : I see. Well now you can get a degree with us in 15 days based on what you already know. The fee for bachelors will be $599
Halina: OK, but will this transfer to Northwestern University?
Angelo Parker : Yes it sure will.
Halina: Do you have any stats about transfer students and how well their degrees transfer to universities like NWU or University of Chicago?
Angelo Parker : Well as the documents are recognized and accredited. You will not be facing any problems getting it accepted
Halina: So, is Ashwood regionally accredited then?
Angelo Parker : Its nationally and internationally accredited
Halina: which national agency?
Angelo Parker : Its mentioned on the website
Angelo Parker : Please check the accreditation tab
Halina: Neither of those agencies are mentioned on Northwestern’s website as recognized. They are asking for regionally accredited agencies like the north central association.
Halina: You said the degree was recognized by Northwestern.
Info : Chat session has been terminated by the site operator.
When I tried to reconnect with Angelo, my chat was terminated immediately. Was it something I said? In any case, if all I need is $599 to get a bachelor’s, why oh why did I spend 4+ years at a community college and then a state school? I really should’ve known better- and apparently my “life experience” bachelor’s degree does transfer to Northwestern University!
Not all schools are as blatantly deceptive as Ashwood University. Westwood is actually nationally accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). In contrast, Ashwood is “accredited” by scam accreditation agencies such as the Board of Online Universities Accreditation (BOUA) and the World Online Education Accrediting Commission (WOEAC). These two agencies are not recognized by the U.S. DOE and may as well be imaginary.
Unfortunately Westwood, although nationally accredited, is not regionally accredited by any of the six national accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. DOE. This means that most post-secondary and regionally accredited schools (e.g., Penn. State) will not recognize a degree from Westwood as legitimate. Furthermore, many employers will also not recognize a degree from a non-regionally accredited school as legitimate.
However, the fact that Westwood is at least nationally accredited means that its students do qualify for and receive federal student loans. This is because the U.S. government only requires that a post-secondary institution be accredited by one U.S. DOE-recognized accreditation agency in order to receive federal funds.
As a result, many Westwood students end up with $60,000+ in student loans by the time they receive their degrees, which is just perfect for the bottom line of a for-profit school like Westwood. Unfortunately for the students, their monetary investment in a Westwood diploma isn’t as worthwhile.
How can you avoid a diploma mill scam?
True institutions of higher learning used to be easy to spot- they were the “classic” brick-and-mortar-and-ivy schools portrayed in such movies as “Back to School”. Nowadays, many colleges and universities are completely online and operate out-of-state or even out-of-the-country. For all you know, these schools could be operating out of a P.O. box or someone’s basement.
However, even the physically present colleges and universities can be scams. After all, it’s not hard to rent a few rooms or even a building, slap a school logo on the doors and call sham classes into session. When a scammer is reaping tens of thousands of dollars per student, even paying several thousand dollars for a physical school is worthwhile in terms of return on investment.
Thus, if you are thinking about signing up with a relatively unknown college or university (i.e., no known alumni and recently founded), first check this school’s accreditation. Then, check the school’s reported accreditation agencies against those posted on the U.S. DOE website and see if they are federally recognized.
Finally, go to the respective regional accreditation agency, such as the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission, and input your school of interest. If your school doesn’t pop up, look elsewhere for your educational aspirations.
Beware of schools that claim that you can receive a degree for your life/work experience with little or no class time. A bachelor’s degree that takes just a few months to complete, classes where almost every student gets an “A”, and pressure by school advisors to receive as much financial aid as possible all hint at a diploma mill scam. In short, do your research and utilize your critical thinking skills for more than just class tests and quizzes.
On a happier note, my dog Murphy just received his acceptance letter from Ashwood University. I listed Murphy’s life experience in biology as working in a medical lab (he went to several veterinary appointments with me) and proctology (Murphy excels at butt-sniffing). Here is his congratulatory letter on his upcoming bachelor’s degree in biology:
We are pleased to announce that based on your resume and your profile score calculated using the CPAAS® profile evaluation system, the evaluation committee at Ashwood University has finally approved you for Bachelor’s Degree. You are among the 5% of candidates who qualified under the CPAAS® profile evaluation system.
CPAAS® is globally renowned and patented evaluation system that performs detailed analysis of your resume, online profile, past accomplishments, and professional and educational background through proprietary global libraries and databases.
You can now pay the amount from the link provided below and get your Bachelor’s Degree within 30 days from today. Once you make the payment, you will also be able to access the Alumni Area of Ashwood University and get exclusive privileges and discounts.
I always knew Murphy was smart.