By Garry W. Johnson
You just can't trust anybody anymore. GED and college correspondence graduates are finding more and more that the certificates they worked so hard for (and/or paid through the nose for) are not worth the paper they are printed on. Even worse, some are being ripped off through scholarship scams with nothing to show for their effort but debt.
If you've come into the prison system and find yourself sitting in a GED class because your credentials were "unverifiable," you are not alone. Students across the country are finding GEDs they paid as much as $1,500 for are nothing more than counterfeits produced by a "diploma mill."
These non-accredited correspondence or distance learning schools have been around for decades, but the internet has now enabled them to reach a much larger audience and expand more into the GED market.
As Washington continues to monkey with the unstable economy and unemployment skyrockets, high school dropouts are finding themselves with even poorer job prospects and turning to these mills in desperation. Statistics from the official General Education Development (GED) program in North Carolina show 14,364 people completing the test in the fiscal year 2011-2012. That was up from 13,028 in 2009-2010 and 12,817 the year before that.
Instead of increasing their ability to obtain or hold a job, the victims of GED scams find themselves squandering money they don't have and making themselves subject to job termination, lawsuits and criminal prosecution. "I don't know how someone who has any kind of conscience can make money from people who are already struggling," said C.T. Turner, spokesman for the GED Testing Service in Washington.
The service is a program of the American Council on Education which began offering the GED in 1942. They have been prodding Federal education officials to pay more attention to mills who target high school dropouts, as well as those selling bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education started investigating online high schools because of concerns about financial aid fraud. The Office of the Inspector General later identified several schools that disbursed an estimated $42.8 million in federal funds to at least 8,000 students receiving diplomas from online high schools between January 2005 and September 2008.
According to the 2010 report, the Hope Career Institute in Florida was ordered to return $76,667 in federal funds for students who received invalid diplomas from Cornerstone Christian Correspondence School in Georgia.
The GED Testing Service is pursuing diploma mills for trademark violations, Turner said, but they are hard to prosecute because they often close down and reopen in another state or country. The outfits also exist in a vacuum of federal and state regulation.
"It's kind of like a game of 'whack-a-mole,' where one pops up and you hit it and then another pops up," Turner said. 'We can only do so much. The people who are being taken advantage of, they need to speak out as well.''
Admissions officers at local community colleges try to stay ahead of the problem by reviewing "hot lists" of distance learning outfits that peddle fraudulent diplomas. Those listed include Cornerstone Christian Correspondence School, Belford High School in Texas and Nation High School in Charlotte.
Nation High School, for example, advertises itself as offering a "globally recognized high school diploma" that doesn't require "long hours of prep." On its website, Nation High School states that it is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Body, the International Online Education Accrediting Board, and the Organization for Online Learning Accreditation (whose acronym is misspelled on the website). None of these three agencies is recognized as credible by the U.S. Department of Education (www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
When a reporter called Nation High School to challenge the value of the accrediting agencies, a person identified as a guidance counselor responded, "Yes, we are recognized. Yes, we are credible. In case you do not get accepted by a college, we do have a money-back guarantee."
An investigative report by News-Record.com identified Trinity Christian Academy Homeschool, Belford University, Essay Relief and Rochville University as peddlers of fraudulent degrees. The Better Business Bureau gave the last three, as well as their sister site, Belford High School, an "F" reliability rating for 167 consumer complaints over a three year period.
People in need of a high school diploma or college degree should beware of purchasing them from outfits that offer the following:
* Degrees that require very little work or are based on "life experience."
* Completion in a few days, weeks or months.
* Package deals to get more than one degree at a time.
* Addresses for administration buildings that include post office boxes or suite numbers.
* Prices that are stated "per degree" instead of "per credit hour."
* Schools that claim to be "Globally Accredited" or "seeking candidacy" for accreditation.
Students in need of financial aid should look for these telltale lines when speaking with a service representative or reading a service's literature:
* "The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back."
* "You can't get this information anywhere else."
* "I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship."
* "You've been selected by a 'national foundation' to receive a scholarship."
* "You’re a finalist" in a contest you never entered.
* "You are invited to attend a financial aid seminar."
(First published by the Mountain Review and published here by permission)