Supposed degree watchdog Geteducated.com may need its own watchdog

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online student using computerSpend time on the Web looking for an online degree program, and you'll confront dozens of similar-sounding, similar-looking sites offering help. Most of these are simply "lead generators," which means their purpose has little to do with your quest for a degree. These sites -- usually without much human intervention, using a lot of canned content -- exist only to connect would-be students to salespeople. The more people who click on X University, the more X University pays that site.

One site seemed several notches above the others, however. GetEducated.com, which gets about as much traffic as the U.S. government's college advice site, calls itself a "consumer watchdog and advocacy group" that "rates, ranks and verifies the cost, quality and credibility of online colleges and universities." In bold letters, it states its mission: "Educate - Advocate - Protect."
A well-written section advises people how to avoid diploma mills, and as an example of its detective work, the site proudly touts its experience getting the bogus Rochville University to award an MBA to a pug. One of GetEducated's most popular rankings, CEO Vicky Phillips said in a phone interview in February, is called "Best Buys," which covers degree programs in disciplines ranging from MBAs to engineering and criminal justice. Other rankings take student satisfaction and public perception into consideration.

GetEducated touts its proprietary data sets, implying a comparison with U.S. News and World Report's college rankings, a sizable chunk of which are for-pay. But it's easy to find holes in GetEducated's lists, and the site's reliance on user-generated content skews scores.

For instance, Capella University's Graduate School of Technology appears to have earned a "public perception" ranking of A, based on a single anonymous review. In fact, that grade earns the whole graduate technology school an "A" in public perception, which doesn't really jibe with consumer complaint board assessments like this one. GetEducated's data on business schools with the more prestigious accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (we'll talk more about the AACSB in a minute), is simply gathered from publicly available sources.

Take a look at Geteducated.com's home page and you'll see sections labeled "Sponsored Featured Online Degrees" (the designation "sponsored" appeared after a discussion with Geteducated's Phillips), "Featured Programs," "Best Buys" and other labels that imply an expert opinion. What the site is less clear about is that most of the content on its home page is paid advertising. Yes, GetEducated.com is a for-profit, advertising-supported consumer watchdog.

Since a telephone interview and e-mail exchange with Phillips, the site has begun labeling some of the home-page graphics with the word "Sponsor." Phillips also said in an interview and e-mail exchange that sponsorship doesn't mean advertisers can pay for more prominent placement in the rankings. "We are the only site that publishes objective cost rankings," she said.

They certainly do it with a lean staff. Their top salesperson's last job was designing closets. Phillips has also taken on something of a sales role. On the discussion site Classroom 2.0 in November, Phillips, commenting on a thread called "The Best and Most Affordable Online College," refers to GetEducated as a "consumer watchdog agency" and recommends Walden University, Capella University, and Grand Canyon University. When asked, Phillips did say, in fact, that Walden, Capella and Grand Canyon are all clients of GetEducated.com, but that had nothing to do with the way GetEducated.com represents them on the site, and that there are many different ways to slice data, depending on the program, school, cost and other factors.

Fair enough. But on this Geteducated.com page and in this 2008 press release (in which GetEducated calls itself an "online degree clearinghouse"), the site's mission appears to be less about "Educate - Advocate - Protect" than praising the merits of regionally accredited schools.

There's nothing wrong with that on the surface. But starting with its home page, GetEducated frequently makes the case that schools without the AACSB accreditation are better buys. And that's not true. An MBA from Walden University will cost you $27,180, and if you believe everything you read on the Internet, which you shouldn't, it will mean about as much to an HR recruiter as a ShamWow pressed under glass. Texas A&M, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and at least a dozen other AACSB-accredited schools can beat Walden's price almost by half. Plus, if you work for a company like Intel, they won't sponsor your tuition if your online degree is from a school that's not AACSB-accredited.

Let's take a step back to conclude. For-profit schools like Walden, Capella, Devry, University of Phoenix and Kaplan carpet-bomb the Internet with advertising. One of them may even have spammed you. The University of Phoenix spent more than $150 million just to name the sports stadium in Glendale, Az., where the NFL's Cardinals play -- though they don't even have a croquet team, let alone a stadium-filling sport. What do you think that was about? Wouldn't $150 million have been better spent on 150, $1 million, one-year endowed chairs at U.S. non-profit colleges to try to cure cancer, develop a remedy for poverty, or at least make the U.S. intellectually competitive enough so it doesn't have to import engineers and doctors?

Here's how to make your college choice easier: Ignore all the white noise from the for-profit guys and their omnipresent proxies on the Web, and choose a non-profit school.
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