Florida International University

NBC 6 Investigation: Online Diplomas

Susan Knodel was searching for an alternative school after her teens, Cassandra and James, got bullied repeatedly at their school, Deerfield Beach High.

“There was so much violence going on in Deerfield middle school,” Knodel said while noting high-profile incidents like Michael Brewer, who was doused with rubbing alcohol and set on fire in 2009 and that of Josie Ratley, who was repeatedly kicked in the head and stomped by another teen.

She was worried her teenagers could meet a similar fate.

“We were pelted with rocks as we were walking home,” said Cassandra, now 21. Her brother James remembered: “People teased me all the time. Problems with students, and teachers wouldn’t help.”

The single mother was worried it would get worse; so in 2010 she found what she thought was a better alternative online, Nation High School.

“They said they were accredited,” Susan Knodel said. “I spoke to them and they said, ‘yeah just dis-enroll your kids from Deerfield High and we’ll take care of the rest’.”

Susan Knodel paid an initial deposit of $189 and then made regular payments. Cassandra and James, who is now 16, went to work, studying subjects like reading and algebra to earn their diplomas.

“They were doing their courses. They seemed to be happy and then all of the sudden, the programs were getting erased,” Susan Knodel said. “And they would have to redo them. And every time they redo a class, they would get charged another $50.”

When the mother called the school to find out why the work was disappearing, the person on the other end of the phone blamed a computer glitch.

“It happened periodically like over and over,” Knodel said. “It just got the point when I said this is it. We are not sending any money to them.”

Susan Knodel filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. That’s when she learned that the BBB gives Nation High School an “F” rating and the school has had 144 complaints in five years.

“I asked for my money back and they won’t give me my money back,” she said.

And now the school keeps calling her and asking for even more money.

“So the newest thing was that for $289, we’ll give you a diploma,” Susan Knodel explained. “Just give it to you.”

No federal or state agency regulates online schools so it’s impossible to know how many exist. However, experts say diploma mills are a billion-dollar industry. While we have no evidence that Nation has been in trouble with the law, we do know that owners of cyber businesses can be slippery, making it hard for authorities to investigate.

Masoud Sadjadi is a computer science professor at Florida International University. He explains it this way.

“The moment you feel like you are going to get caught, you close down and shut down the website,” Sadjadi said. “And you create another one under another …legitimate-looking name. That’s how it is happening today.”

Team 6 Investigators decided to find out just what the qualifications are to get a diploma from Nation High School.

First, a producer chatted with a virtual counselor, named Daniel Sanchez in an online chat window. The website touts a specialized diploma for prior life experience.

Then, Sanchez called the producer and explained that all he needed is the producer’s birth date to convert her years of experience into credits.

No classes or tests needed.

Sanchez tells her all she needs to do is pay $239 and her diploma will arrive in the mail.

Sherry Joseph-Dutton directs Miami-Dade College’s Adult Education Program. She says she enrolls a lot of people in the GED program who say they’ve gotten worthless diplomas from online schools.

“The common complaint that we received is that I wasted my time,” Joseph-Dutton said. “I wasted my money and now I have to start all over once again.”

Our producer’s diploma did arrive complete with transcripts for classes she never took.

When Team 6 Investigators contacted Nation High School by phone, we were told that Nation High had shut down.

Cassandra got a high school diploma from a legitimate charter school last June. Her brother James is now a senior.

Even so, the siblings said they are angry that they’ve spent two years “studying” at Nation High School and have nothing to show for it or for the $2,962 their mom spent trying to get them a good education.

“If I didn’t waste my time so much with Nation I could have graduated already,” Cassandra said. “I wouldn’t be 21 and just getting my diploma.”

James agrees, “I could have got a lot more done had I not gone to Nation.”

Before you spend money to attend any virtual school, do your homework. Check with the Better Business Bureau and consumer complaints boards to make sure the school is legitimate. Find out if the school is accredited by a group recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. (see link below)

The Federal Trade Commission says these are signs of a diploma mill:

  • No studies, no exam and no interaction: If you are getting a degree without any work, chances are you are dealing with a diploma mill. Legitimate schools and colleges required course work and interaction with teachers.
  • Get a degree for experience: Diploma mills grant degrees for work or life experience alone. Accredited colleges may give a few credits for specific experience relevant to a degree program, but not an entire degree.
  • Flat fee: Diploma mills charge on a per-degree basis. Legitimate colleges charge by the credit, course or semester – not a flat fee for a diploma or degree.
  • Call the admissions office: If you are planning to attend college, call the admission’s office at the particular college you are planning to attend to see if they accept the diploma from that particular online school.
  • Click here to check if an online school is accredited by AdvancED
  • IC3 is an organization created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center whose mission is to investigate cybercrimes. To file a complaint, go to www.ic3.gov or the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org.
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