Accreditation Scams

By Garry W. Johnson

A reporter visited the websites of the high school's accreditation agencies, the In­ternational Accrediting Agency for Online Universities and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation, and found they provided no address, names of staff, or listing of schools they certify.  Image courtesy academicdirections.com

Employees of Belford refused to give straight forward answers when a reporter called and asked why the accrediting agen­cies had such vague websites. When the re­porter mentioned that the agencies weren't listed in the U.S. Department of Education's database, the employee respon­ded - correctly, but irrelevantly - that the education department doesn't accredit schools. Then he hung up. The reporter also called the accrediting agencies twice, but no one answered.

Post-Secondary Education Accreditation

Unlike bogus GED programs, college legit­imacy is a little harder to nail down, espe­cially in the United States. In other nations most colleges and universities are operated by the government, just as the public school system is here. But colleges in the U.S. are private (like diploma mills) or state facilities, and the federal government does not have a body of experts who in­vestigate and approve individual schools. In fact, accreditation in this country is en­tirely a voluntary process. The government does not commission accrediting agencies; they are essentially private firms made up of experts for investigating and deeming worthy schools that are willing to be ac­credited. This lack of central supervision has led to there being good accreditation and bad accreditation.

Take for example an accrediting agency that calls itself the Accrediting Commission for Specialized Colleges. This agency ac­credits, among others, a school named Indi­ana Northern Graduate School. The name sounds impressive, but investigators found the school to be nothing more than a dairy farm in Gas City. The accrediting agency will accredit anyone willing to mail them a check for $110.

To further complicate matters, there are also legitimate post-secondary schools that forgo accreditation for various reasons. The process of legitimate accreditation is often very expensive and many small schools simply cannot afford the high cost. Other schools are too new or too experimental to seek accreditation, but are otherwise legit­imate organizations.

Much more often the problem is that a bad school, or more likely, a phony school, claims to be accredited. This is possible be­cause anyone with money can set up a busi­ness and claim to be an accrediting agency. Frequently, a person will set up an accredit­ing agency and then set up a "school." Af­terward, they will accredit themselves.

Verifile Limited, a background screen­ing company based in the United Kingdom, issued a 2010 report calling the U.S. the "fake college capital" of the world.

You can check with CHEA to verify the legitimacy of an accrediting agency at www.chea.org/Directories/index.cfm. The CHEA agency oversees all six regional ac­crediting agencies, two national accredita­tion agencies and nearly fifty professional agencies. CHEA was established in 1996, after a long debate over the "appropriate role for a national organization concerned with accreditation of higher education in­stitutions," according to its website. CHEA recognizes an accrediting agency as authentic by a similar process school undergo seeking accreditation.

Basically, there are two levels of au­thentic accreditation: regional and national. The two national accrediting agencies are Accrediting Council for Independent Col­leges and Schools (ACIS) and Distance Education and Training Council (www.detc.org).

The six regional accrediting agencies are, however, by far the best. The names of these agencies are: Middle States Associ­ation of Colleges and Schools (www.msache), New England Association of Schools and Colleges (www.neasc.org), North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (www.ncanlc.org), Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (www.nwccu.org), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (www.sacs.org) and Western Association of Schools and Col­leges (www.wascweb.org).

If one of these accredits the school you are interested in, you are on the right track. CHEA also has a database of approved schools on its • website at www.chea.org/institutions/search.cfm. Just keep in mind that credit from any of these schools is not automatically accepted by any other school. Check with individual schools if the transfer of credit is a concern. When shopping for an education, con­sider the following fraud indicators: First, does the school claim to be "globally" in­stead of "nationally" accredited? CHEA does not recognize any "global" accrediting agencies. A second fraudulent method is to claim that a school is not eligible for authentic accreditation because it is exclus­ively a correspondence school. This is not true because many authentic accrediting agencies will accredit a correspondence school. Also, any school claiming that it is "seeking candidacy" is lying. Schools are not allowed to divulge that information un­til they have been granted accreditation.

Scholarship Scams

Although federal law prevents inmates from obtaining Pell Educational Grants (Section 20411 of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) and drug convicts from receiving federal stu­dent aid (The Higher Education Reform Act, as amended in 1988) the incarcerated may be able to secure scholarships, grants and foundation assistance. You may solicit alumni and other associations, civic and service clubs, churches and religious organ­izations, and/or private and public founda­tions and trust. You may also employ a private scholarship search service.

The U.S. Department of Education does not evaluate scholarship search services, so use extreme caution. Check with the Better Business Bureau or the Tennessee attorney general's office before forking over any money to one of these businesses. You can also have your family conduct a free search using the government website at www.studentaid.ed.gov/scholarship.

Be careful when searching for informa­tion on student financial aid. Scholarship scams cost victims more than $100 million annually and often imitate legitimate gov­ernment agencies, grant-giving founda­tions, educational lenders and scholarship matching services using official-sounding names containing words like "National," "Federal," "Foundation" or "Administra­tion." Be wary of scholarships with an application fee, scholarship matching ser­vices who guarantee success, advance-fee loan scams, and sales pitches disguised as financial aid "seminars."

The College Scholarship Fraud Preven­tion Act of 2000 .was enacted to protect against fraud in student financial assist­ance. Make sure the information you re­ceive and offers for assistance are legitim­ate. Don't fall prey to fraud. To file a com­plaint with the Federal Trade Commission, or for more detailed information on scams, call: I-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY 1-866-653-4261 or visit the website www.ftc.gov/scholarshipscams.

(First published by Mountain Review and used here by permission)