Dear Joyce: I need to know whether my degree from India is recognized in the U.S. Can you tell me what "accreditation" means and if I can obtain a master's degree working at home by mail or computer? Please help a newcomer. S.J.
In the area of non-traditional education and related issues, Dr. John Bear has no peer. His authoritative guide has just been revised under a new title, "100 College Degrees by Mail: 100 Good Schools That Offer Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorates and Law Degrees" by Home Study (Ten Speed Press, $11.95).
Widely available in softcover in bookstores (or call (800) 841-2665; in California (415) 845-8414), Bear lists six private services that evaluate foreign credentials. Costs typically range from $60 to $150. He warns that some institutions of higher education will accept the recommendations of the academic evaluation services, but others won't. Check first.
Many questions to this column on academic equivalents relate to using the degree for licensing or employment, thus a private evaluation could be very useful. What the services do, Bear explains, is calculate the precise U.S. equivalents of non-U.S. academic work.
Accreditation is not a government-sponsored guarantee of quality, but a voluntary process a school (or program) may elect to go through to show it meets minimum standards of competence. Some very good schools as well as some very bad schools are not accredited, Bear reminds us. And some "less-than-wonderful" schools are accredited, but not many, he believes.
More than 100 accrediting agencies monitor schools and programs. Most are legitimate but some are flimflam marketing tools created by schools to fool the public. As Bear notes, accreditation is not the same thing as being licensed, chartered, approved, authorized or recognized.
Accreditation is complex. Do not accept the term as proof of adequacy without knowing what agency is doing the accrediting and if that agency itself is accredited. Bear explains all in his book.
As for earning a good, legitimate, usable undergraduate, advanced or professional degree through home study, yes, it can be done. Recognition of the credential will not rival that of a selective university, but you know that. The main thing to avoid is being victimized by unprincipled degree mills.
Bear has honed in on the topic for nearly two decades, and he's heard every horror story in the book, ranging from graduates who are shocked to see their alma mater exposed on "60 Minutes" to discovering the title on the degree is not the one they expected. One anguished man wrote Bear that after seven years in a program, he discovered he would be getting an M.S. in architecture, not the master of architecture that he wanted. (The first is a non-professional degree that often is heavily oriented toward research, building technology or architectural criticism; the second prepares graduates for professional practice and becoming registered architects.)
In choosing a home study school or program to obtain a degree, the first question to ask is, "Will it meet my needs (will employers accept it, will it suffice for licensing requirements, will it be accepted for future study)?
The second question is: Is it legitimate? Some schools with very impressive-looking catalogues, Bear observes, are operated from mail-forwarding services. Degrees from these shams are not worth the paper they're printed on.