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College Degrees For Sale

It was only a matter of time before the full extent of the obsession with a college degree became apparent. Appropriately, the venue is California, which leads the nation in the number of unaccredited schools ("California Leads Nation in Unaccredited Schools, and Enforcement Is Lax," The New York Times, Jan.14). At last count, these totaled nearly 1,000 colleges and vocational schools.

One of the reasons students and their parents shell out money for tuition at these schools is that they confuse state approval and accreditation. The former is essentially a license granted by the state to operate. The latter derives from national or regional agencies that review curriculums and standards. Not only do unaccredited colleges require fewer units to graduate, but they also shortchange students by granting them a degree that is virtually worthless. California, Michigan and Oregon, for example, will not hire graduates from unaccredited schools for many civil service jobs and will not allow them to qualify for most professional licenses and teaching certificates.

Nevertheless, students seem not to care. It's almost as if seeing their name on a piece of paper that declares they now possess a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree is enough. It's a delusion, of course, but they are not deterred. In a way, who can blame them? They've been indoctrinated from an early age to believe that a college degree is the surest ticket to a successful future and that the nation is best served by increasing numbers of college graduates.

But there is a distinct difference between quantity and quality. I thought of medical schools that existed in the late 19th century. Alarmed by the uneven quality of the more than 150 medical schools enrolling some 25,000 students at the time, the American Medical Association created the Council on Medical Education in 1904. The purpose was to investigate ways to restructure the existing system of educating doctors. The council asked the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for help. Its president, Henry Pritchett, chose Abraham Flexner in 1908 to head the study because of his experience as a professional educator.

What Flexner reported reflects many of the charges leveled against unaccredited colleges today. For example, he described the California Medical College as "a disgrace to the state whose laws permit its existence." He termed Chicago's 14 medical schools "the plague spot of the country." Today's unaccredited colleges in California continue to operate because they have satisfactorily filled out an eight-page application with the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the post-secondary education bureau. This makes a mockery of the concept of responsibility, but it is completely legal.

The media have devoted extensive coverage to the shortcomings of for-profit colleges. It's now time for them to do the same for diploma mills. In the final analysis, however, students (and their parents) need to exercise due diligence before writing a check. Otherwise, students are going to find themselves saddled with substantial debt for a meaningless degree.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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