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A tangled Web of Internet offerings
Finding reputable online universities can be a challenge

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff - November 7, 2004

When Jeremy Brown decided to earn his master's degree online, he faced a dizzying
array of choices, from traditional schools like the University of Arizona and the
University of Florida to for-profit giants with no central campus, such as the University
of Phoenix.

Brown, a 27-year-old data analyst in Dallas, finally settled on a school he had
never seen: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

''I'm a big basketball fan, so I had heard of them," he said. ''I did the research,
and found out they don't make you go to campus, and I called them up and they were
very friendly."

If choosing a school without seeing it seems surprising, well, welcome to the world
of online degrees. With online education booming, students are struggling to sift
through a raft of unfamiliar schools and figure out, often without a reassuring
campus visit, whether the program is reputable.

That challenge worries higher-ed administrators, since online programs that see
themselves as academically rigorous are forced to occupy the same e-mail inbox as
spam from unaccredited diploma mills.

''With 2,000 to 3,000 online courses, and more and more coming onto the Web, there
has to be some intelligent way for people to sift through and determine what they
are," said Greg Eisenbarth, a former corporate training executive who last
year founded a group, the Online University Consortium, to assess the quality of
online degree programs.

Traditionally, college students have been able to rely on accreditation from regional
organizations, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which
checks out a school's curriculum, staff, and facilities. Dozens of other agencies
issue their seal of approval in career-specific programs such as business, engineering,
and education.

Many of these also assess online programs. Online MBAs offered by the University
of Massachusetts, for example, are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate
Schools of Business, a standard met by fewer than 500 schools worldwide. But many
traditional accreditors hand out their blessing without expert study of the unique
details of online learning, such as the quality of communication tools used to link
teachers and students. And the online world lacks any one universally accepted accrediting
body, though the Distance Education Training Council is recognized by the Council
for Higher Education Accreditation, and newer groups like Eisenbarth's are beginning
to set standards and assess quality.

Eisenbarth spent months consulting with leaders in the field before settling on
seven criteria that programs must meet to earn his consortium's approval. About
30 schools have made the grade so far, he said, while almost as many applications
have been rejected, including three attempts by online giant University of Phoenix.

Quality checkpoints include a school's admissions standards (Is a transcript required,
or is acceptance automatic?) and budget priorities (Schools should spend more on
course development than advertising). Schools do not pay for the approval.
''We're a screen, so people can come to us and know we've done a lot of legwork
for them, and it gives them more confidence that they're getting a good education,"
said Eisenbarth.

In some ways, sorting through online schools has become easier for students -- at
least when it comes to sifting out fraudulent degrees. Many states maintain lists
of unaccredited diploma mills: Michigan's list, posted on the state website, includes
the names of more than 500 questionable institutions, from Abacus Academy to Zenith
University. (Massachusetts does not have a similar public list.) One directory of
online colleges, GetEducated.com, even offers a free e-mail service, ''Diploma Mill
Police," to check the accreditation of individual degree programs.

Jill Cerasa, a 24-year-old securities brokerage trader from Longmeadow, said her
company is covering the $23,000 cost of an online MBA from UMass-Amherst. Cerasa
said one reason she chose the university was its familiarity, and the fact that
several co-workers are attending the MBA program on the Amherst campus. ''I was
so excited to do it online, because I love technology," she said.

Diann Burnham, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital for 20 years, said she
is nervous about staying motivated in the online master's program she begins this
month, but she didn't have trouble picking a school. Mass. General, like a growing
number of employers who want reliable online training for workers, recently designated
an official provider of online nursing education, and chose St. Joseph's College
in Maine.

''I have immense faith in the institution I work for, and people say the college
is a great place," said Burnham, who will take two courses during a required
two-week residential term at the Standish, Maine, campus next summer.
Elsewhere, some companies are refusing to reimburse tuition costs for employees
whose online courses don't meet recommended standards, said Eisenbarth.

The quality question also matters for employers. Though online master's degrees
are becoming popular among teachers, human resources directors for public school
systems in Boston, Newton, and Springfield said they have seen few resumes that
list online degrees -- possibly because few diplomas actually specify that a degree
was earned online. As more students go online, they said, they may adopt new strategies
to check the quality of applicants' degrees.

''I see the advantages of online learning, but clearly we have to be careful,"
said Paul Stein, the Newton director. ''If someone gets burned, you're going to
see more checks and balances."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.