During periods of unemployment, colleges generally see a surge of people who are either going back to school in order to retool for a different career, or who are attempting to wisely spend their time in gaining more education in order to better themselves. What has changed over the years, however, is the nature of the education that is being afforded these return students. We are required by the rise of on-line degree mills disguised as universities to ask questions about higher education—no longer are all bachelor’s degrees equal, and even a master’s degree is meaningless if it isn’t earned through graduate level work.
Perhaps we could chalk degrees from these institutions up to a kind of educational con game making students think that the MBA they’ve earned in less than a year will earn them entrance into a high paying profession. In reality, however, the damage done by these degree mills amounts to more than just a personal tragedy for the student who believes they’ve received an education, it is a national problem. Because much of the motivation to return to school during periods of economic downturn is related to federal grants, these return students are going back to school on the taxpayer dime. While we may endorse paying for the retraining of someone’s obsolete or substandard skills in order to help them better fit the nation’s workforce, if, instead, we are paying for these students to receive substandard education or training for careers in an already flooded market, then we, as a nation, are quite simply throwing our money away.
Through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration is giving the American education system $39.8 billion in aid to help the country revitalize its schools during this time of economic turmoil. Obviously, much of this money is going to k-12 schools, but some of it is ear marked for universities and college students. One should add to this number the enormous amount of money available now to most college students through Pell grants which award up to $5,350 per year for families making less than $60,000 per year. More is available to students through school loans. If awarded to students with a potential to make more money through their education, these loans are a good national investment—if taken to simply procure a valueless degree from a disreputable institution, then the loan is a bad investment. Who will hire an architect who learned to be an architect in less than a year? The money borrowed to invest in that education will never make a return.
If we are to pay for these educational opportunities, we would do well to consider what we are paying for. Right now, as a nation, we need engineers. As taxpayers, it would be wise for us to invest in the future of students interested in an education in engineering. On-line degree mills tend to stay away from offering courses in subjects like engineering and prefer professional degrees like business or accounting, which are easier and cheaper to teach. We should also consider the quality of instruction that takes place in a degree mill. Teachers for these courses earn less than minimum wage. Axia College, for instance, runs internet classrooms and pays their instructors as low as $1,235 to instruct 9 week long classes. During those 9 weeks, instructors are expected to run the classroom itself, and be available for 20 hours a week to respond to student questions. Thus, counting office hours, Axia college entry level pay is around $6.86 an hour. Not that pay is necessarily equivalent to skill or competency, but then, what teacher will work for such pittance except for those who cannot, for whatever reason, find work elsewhere?
The trouble with these schools extends even to the graduate level as degree mills now advertise the ability to grant master’s degrees. Often their graduate programs are advertised as “accelerated “ which means that students are expected to do two years worth of school work in one, and without having to leave their job. Such a degree simply cannot be worth its traditional two-year counterpart–it’s “acceleration” generally involves reducing class time to its bare minimum and then shamelessly lowering the expectations of the student’s work load to a degree that would be unacceptable for a traditional graduate school. It is personal tragedy for a student who goes into such a program, but when their education is paid for through taxpayer money, it becomes sad for everyone.
What our nation’s colleges need is a real measure of whether or not a degree is worth public support—a test, perhaps, that decides whether the person who gained the degree has actually received the appropriate level of knowledge. As America pumps more and more money into the education system to help people go back to school, it’s only reasonable that there should be some sort of capability to check the results. If the graduate of an on-line program’s version of an MBA can measure themselves up against a standard for what we, as a nation, expect from people with such degrees, then all is well: the degree counts and we will have no qualms about paying for it. If not, then the degree isn’t worth the paper its printed on, and if you want it, you should have to pay for it on your own.