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Lawyers in Utah all too aware of problematic “diploma mills” in the state

One great thing about the maturation of the Internet from its birth almost 75 years ago is the accessibility to information it has provided to nearly every corner of the globe. Recent advocates of online education have hailed the way that universities can upload lesson plans, class notes and lectures online, spreading the love of education and availability of information to millions. Online courses are cheaper for institutions to produce without the overhead of a physical space, and students can access course content from thousands of educators for affordable prices in places where there was previously no access for hundreds of miles. But there’s a darker side to the story as well. Lawyers in Utah point to the troubles that one woman encountered, experiencing fraudulent online courses, as explained in this local KUTV news article.

Michelle Ward’s online program was worthless— she spent $700 to complete six weeks’ worth of classes. Because of her rural and remote location in Price, Michelle’s options for obtaining certification for the job she wanted as a medical assistant were limited, and she chose an online program that promised an accredited certificate. When she went to a job interview after finishing the course, however, she found out the certificate was a fake, “and no one will let her take the exam” because the “school” she attended is not accredited by the right people.

St. Augustine School of Medical assistants has received several complaints, say lawyers in Utah who are familiar with the “diploma mill.” Some of the complaints have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission, who will sometimes go after such unregulated entities for “misrepresenting the validity, legitimacy, and usefulness of their so-called degrees.” But many estimate that the chance of prosecution by a federal or state agency is pretty slim for these guys.

One U.S. Representative, Tim Bishop, (D-New York) has been trying to get legislation passed against these diploma mills, but nothing has gained traction so far. “Credentials ought to mean something. When [a school] is competing with someone who has credentials that are meaningless, that’s not right,” he says.

But even some lawyers in Utah aren’t so sure whether creating more laws is the way to go. Harking back to the early days of the legal profession (when apprenticeship was a viable route to becoming an attorney for those living in remote and rural areas for lawyers like founding father John Adams) some wonder whether a six-week online “school” would be as effective as a six-week stint shadowing professionals in the field of any profession. An educational model that prioritizes and commoditizes information over experience can only take us so far.

Still, Michelle Ward feels cheated, both out of her hopes and her $700. Attorney Gregory W. Schulz and other lawyers in Utah point to the likelihood of such diploma mills continuing to run in full operation without significant legal opposition, which can be much more expensive than the $700 courses that many aspiring professionals save up for. Bottom line? Do as much as you can to protect yourself by researching online schools extensively before handing over the cash.

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