Tifton Gazette

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June 9, 2014

Seeking a high school diploma? Be cautious when making a plan

TIFTON — You dropped out of high school, and you always regretted doing so. Now, you decide the time is right to go back to school and get that diploma.

After an online search, you find there are lots of programs in which you can earn your diploma, so you sign up, and just six short weeks later, you get your diploma.

But is it legitimate?

There are reports in the news and online of hundreds of "diploma mills" throughout the country, whose sole purpose is not to provide a real high school diploma – the people behind the programs just want the fees. There are so many options that it can be overwhelming to find the right program that is also an accredited one.  

Non-accredited online high schools accept a fee, and the amounts can vary. Many promise the diploma in as little as six weeks, but that diploma is not recognized by employers or postsecondary educational institutions, because these programs often require little to no coursework. Legitimate schools require substantial academic "sweat" before granting a diploma, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Many of these so-called diploma mills claim to be accredited, but mostly by agencies that don't apply demonstrated standards of academic rigor when granting accreditation.

For example, in a story published in The Gazette this past weekend, a local woman obtained a high school diploma through the program at American Academy of Pinecrest in Miami, Fla. The school's website states it is an accredited member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a member of The College Board, a member of ACT, Inc., a member of the Education Testing Service, and affiliated with the Associate of Christian Schools International. The site further states the school is accredited by the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the Transworld Accrediting Commission International. Neither of these organizations are recognized by the educational community nationwide.

The NALSAS site states its accreditation requirements include membership fees, annual dues and an on-site visit. NALSAS accredits based only on one standard: consumer protection.

Schools seeking accreditation from a respected accrediting organization must pass a review to ensure they meet educational standards. The accreditation gives individual diplomas value because its teachers, coursework, facilities, equipment and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education.

The Pinecrest site also says it is a Better Business Bureau Accredited Business. According to the BBB's website, this means that American Academy of Pinecrest paid a fee to the BBB for membership, but this does not mean the business' products and services have been evaluated or endorsed by the BBB. The school was given an A+ rating by the BBB. There are eight complaints listed with the BBB against the school in the past three years, all of which have been resolved.

Distance learning is not a new concept, having been around for years. But because the growth of this type of school has happened so fast, it has been virtually impossible for state and federal regulation to be in place.

According to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, education experts and consumer advocates say many of these online high schools use accrediting groups with questionable credentials, giving the schools an endorsement that unsuspecting students often do not question. And these schools appeal to would-be students by offering study-at-home convenience and fast results while charging $300 to $1,200 for a high school diploma. The Pinecrest school offers a full payment plan for $350, and a monthly payment plan, $39 down and $40 a month, for a total of $399.

The Florida Commission for Independent Education, a state regulatory agency that oversees for-profit and public post-secondary institutions in the state, has received complaints from consumers about suspected diploma mills, said Tom Butler, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.

“Keep in mind that this is a national problem and Florida does not have any statutory authority over the schools that are running diploma mills,” Butler said. “Students must be prudent and do their diligence when pursuing admission to schools.”

There are some ways to tell if an online high school diploma school is legitimate:

• Check the school's accreditation. Research the school and the agencies from which it claims accreditation. You should also check with the BBB to read complaints or reviews.

• If the online school you are considering offers a General Educational Development (GED) online, remember that the GED is never available online for individuals. You must take your test in person at a certified GED testing center, or be assisted by personnel at the testing center to take it online.

• You never get something for nothing. You should expect to work for your diploma. If the school offers you a diploma after a short test, it's likely not legitimate. Many of these scam artists will charge you after you pass the test, which the legitimate schools will charged you a fee up front, regardless of whether you pass.

• Check out the school's website, making sure there is a clear outline of the school's program, and that there are no grammatical or spelling errors. If there is no contact information, close the site and move on.

CT Turner, associate director of marketing and public relations for GED Testing Service, a program of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops and delivers the GED test, said few online high schools issue diplomas that are accepted by colleges, universities and post-secondary schools.

“People are so desperate to earn that credential, and many of these schools are preying on people who are struggling financially,” Turner said.

In Tift County, adults who are seeking to take the test for their GED may do so at Moultrie Technical College's Tifton campus, through the school's Office of Adult Education. The school offers online classes, and you can take free adult basic education classes at locations in Colquitt, Turner, Tift and Worth counties. There is a fee for taking the GED test. For more information, call 229-391-2615.

You may attend tutoring sessions and GED classes with the Literacy Volunteers of Tifton-Tift County. For more information, call 229-391-2527.

To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.

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