Investigative Report

Degrees of Difficulty

The Truth About Online Universities

Pursuing a degree from an online university is convenient, but our investigation uncovers issues that make us wonder how these for-profit schools really work. High-pressure sales tactics can mislead you into pursuing a degree you can’t afford. And questionable teaching and grading methods can dilute the value of any degree.  

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Bonnie Belden of Spokane, Wash., was making good money by cleaning apartments, but at age 56, she knew that she didn’t have much of a future in it. Art was her real passion, and she thought that if she could work while she studied for an online bachelor’s degree in graphic design, it would lead to a better paying career.

So, she contacted an admissions adviser from American InterContinental University (AIU) in November 2005. According to Belden, the admissions adviser told her that she would learn from top-notch professionals in the field; that the school would help her find a job with the companies with which they were well-connected; and that most everyone who attended found a good job upon graduation. Then the admissions adviser called her four times a day, for 2 weeks straight, until she agreed to enroll in classes.

“She pushed and pushed and pushed,” Belden says. “She made me feel like it was only an exclusive group of people that got into the school. I didn’t know better. I was flattered [because] it made me feel special, but I got duped.”

Belden’s degree cost her $43,000 (not the $32,000 that she says she was quoted by the admissions adviser). She says her professors were often incompetent, or they were unresponsive to e-mails that requested consultation, and that she taught herself most of the material or depended on other classmates to explain it. She graduated at the top of her class with a 4.0 grade-point average and expected, as per the assurances of the admissions adviser, that she’d be able to find a job that would enable her to pay off her debts.

But she says her education left her completely unqualified to get a job in her field nearly a year after she graduated from AIU in June 2008. (AIU dodged our questions about unsatisfied former students.) Belden now makes $38,000 a year as a property manager and has $74,000 of college debt to pay off, including the interest on her loans.

FAILING GRADE. Belden’s bad experience is far too common at for-profit online universities. At a time when the recession has motivated many people to increase their earning power, pursue a new career or get a degree, it’s easy to see why someone would be sold on the convenience of an online degree. After all, you can take classes and earn the degree from home while you work or raise a family, and often in less time than at a traditional university.

Online Outline

Online Outline

But after interviewing 26 former employees and students from the biggest for-profit online universities, we discovered a disturbing pattern that gives the appearance that many of these schools are more interested in generating revenues for their parent companies than in providing a valuable education.

The stories that we heard from former students and former school employees who recruited students via telephone paint a picture of a numbers-driven enrollment process right out of a telemarketing bible. Too often, the recruiters at these schools aggressively solicit unqualified students who are likely to fail or drop out. In other cases, even competent, qualified students are being pushed through programs, learning little and getting easy A’s. In short, too many students at these schools are racking up significant college debt and finding themselves ill-prepared for gainful employment upon graduation.

It’s difficult for us to say what value a degree from a for-profit online university delivers, because there are many students (and we interviewed some of them) who say they benefited from getting such a degree. What we can’t say is whether those students would have been better off by paying less for the same degree at a community college or by paying similar amounts for the same degree at a traditional private or public 4-year school. (See “Online Pass/Fail.")

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