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Online Distance Learning FAQs

Online Distance Learning FAQs

November 30, 1999

There are many ways to research schools on the Internet, but you cannot always be sure that you are getting honest, impartial information or biased information from people who are associated with less-than-wonderful schools.  In this article we answer the most frequently asked questions about online distance learning.

If a school says that it's accredited, does that mean it's a good, legitimate school?
Not necessarily. Under GAAP, Generally Accepted Accreditation Principles, a school is considered accredited (by the worlds of academia, business, and government) only if the accreditation comes from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation in Washington--or if the school is listed in the International Handbook of Universities (a UNESCO publication), the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook, the World Education Series (published by AACRAO, the association of registrars) or the Country Series (published by the Australian National Office on Overseas Skills Recognition). There are more than 50 unrecognized accrediting agencies, and accreditation by certain tiny nations does not meet the criteria of GAAP either.

How do people out in the world really feel about degrees earned by distance learning these days?
In a word, great, as long as the school is accredited under GAAP. In one major study (by Sosdian & Sharp), 100% of HR and personnel officers at major companies said they not only would accept such degrees, many actually preferred them, since it showed that the person was capable of independent study and self-directed work. Degrees from schools not accredited under GAAP can be of benefit to those who want the degree for self esteem or satisfaction, and for those working for companies willing to accept such degrees. Problems may arise if company policies change, or when one re-enters the job market.

I know I could do the work if they'd give me the job, but they say they'll only consider people with degrees. Is it really stupid to consider getting a fast and easy degree just to get in the door?
In a word, yes. We hear from so many people who get into really big trouble by acquiring a fast and easy degree. We also hear success stories from people who, in such situations, tell their employer or potential employer, "I am enrolling in the following regionally accredited program. With credit for my prior learning, and by taking equivalency examinations, I anticipate earning the degree on [date]. On that basis, I hope you will consider accepting me provisionally, and I'll keep you up to date on my progress toward the degree."

I'm afraid I won't stay motivated for the long haul if I sign on for a totally distance learning degree. Is there any help for people like me?
There are many different academic models offered by distance learning schools. Some are highly interactive (either by phone, mail, e-mail, or even local cohort groups); others are very non-interactive. Some are highly structured; some are quite free-form. Some expect you to be on-line several hours a week; others expect to hear from you once or twice a year to take exams. Some have regularly accessible on-line or telephone mentors or faculty. For many people, a "hybrid" program, combining a great deal of distance learning with some in-person work (one evening a week, one Saturday a month, several weeks on campus during the summer, etc.) makes the most sense. It is important to choose a program that meets your needs,  Realize there is nothing wrong with abandoning something that doesn't feel right for you.

How can there be such a tremendous range in the cost of a basic undergrad degree? Does the price have any relationship to anything real?
Surprisingly little, since some schools depend largely on tuition for support, while others are state-funded or rely on donations and foundations. For instance, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University are both wonderful schools, yet one costs five times as much as the other. Among the schools accredited under GAAP, semester units can cost less than $10 each (in the case of the 30 units awarded by Regents for a single GRE subject exam) to more than $300 each. You should shop around for a course or a school as carefully as you would shop for a car.

Are there scholarships for people who earn degrees in non-traditional ways?
Yes, but not nearly as many as for traditional students. Many schools argue that since you do not need to leave your job or to travel or live on campus, there is less need for subsidizing your education. The best place to start is with the financial aid office of the school itself, which will know what may be available there. Be very cautious of the so-called "scholarship finding" services.

If I really do the degree, I want to graduate. I want the cap and gown and the boring speeches in addition to the piece of paper. Any hope? (And: will the diploma show that I did it by distance learning?)
Oh, my, yes. I worked with someone who spoke on commencement day in 1998 at one of the largest of the nonresident schools, and there were hundreds and hundreds of graduates there, in caps and gowns, most of them seeing their alma mater for the first and only time. And many distance programs are just a small part of the life of a major university (such as the University of Iowa or California State University), and all graduates are welcome at the ceremony. The diploma never mentions how the degree was earned.

Can you earn any degree at a distance? Okay, maybe not medicine or dentistry, but can you get a doctorate without residency?
At this time, there is a wide range of Master's degrees that can be earned without ever setting foot on the campus (from the one in electrical engineering at Stanford to the one in management at Thomas Edison State), but no school accredited under GAAP offers a totally nonresident doctorate. There are, however, a number of degrees that can be earned with only one to four weeks on campus: Fielding, Union, Nova Southeastern, Walden, Graduate School of America, Sarasota, and a few others. A few unaccredited but state-approved schools have nonresident doctorates, and there are some interesting, if hard to "get a handle on" research doctorate options from the U.K., Australia, and South Africa.

If I earn a distance learning undergrad degree, does this put me lower down on some list if I want to apply to graduate school? How about if I want to go from a nontraditional master's into a regular doctorate?
There is no simple answer here. In fact, it can get very complicated, because the issue of regional accreditation versus national accreditation arises. Most schools will accept (or at least consider) credits and degrees from regionally-accredited schools. But a fair number of schools do not accept the credits or degrees from schools accredited by such national accreditors as the Distance Education and Training Council. Most non-U.S. schools with accreditation under GAAP will be acceptable. But at the graduate level, most admissions decisions are made not by the admissions department, but by the department or college within the school; admission policies may vary even within the same school.

The only safe answer is the one that really applies to almost any question you can ask about any school: before you spend even one penny (or shilling or frank or Euro) on any school, do as much research and due diligence as you can, to be really, really sure that the school is legitimate, and that the degree will meet your current and your predictable future needs.