An online high school that bypasses the pep rallies, proms, and the principal’s office? Under the right circumstances, that might be an innovation in education. But what if it skips the classes and coursework while falsely promising a valid sheepskin from an accredited institution? According to a lawsuit filed by the FTC, the diplomas issued by a tangle of outfits operating under the names Jefferson High School Online and Enterprise High School Online aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
The FTC says the defendants run diploma mills that sell fake credentials to consumers nationwide. Sign up for our program, they claim, and get an “official” diploma that can be used to enroll in college or qualify for jobs. “If you never finished or never started high school, its [sic] not too late. Take classes and earn your high school diploma all online with a program that works around your busy schedule.” Concerned about the quality? Don’t be, the defendants urge. Their system is “designed to the rigors of a private high school exam diploma program.”
Citing their “24/7/365 school support” and “registrar” who can verify for prospective employers that a person is a “graduate,” the defendants say they offer something equivalent to – or even better than – a GED. “So you have to ask yourself, do you want an [sic] diploma or just a certificate like the GED? For a real diploma, you would prefer our system over the other,” especially considering that “as any online search will tell you, many colleges or employers don’t accept certificates based on the GED Test.”
To cloak their questionable practices with the cap and gown of legitimacy, the defendants claimed that “JHS is a private school registered in FL and abides by all DoE requirements.” The defendants also touted their independent accreditation by the IABOS, the International Accrediting Body of Online Schools.
But don’t worry about having to hit the books since there aren't any. Nor do the defendants offer study materials or courses of instruction. All people have to do is take an online "exam." Not a confident test-taker? Not a problem. The defendants even offer hints to help select the right answers. What about that international accreditation? IABOS, it turns out, is a phony group cooked up by the defendants, who registered the website iabos.org in 2007 and deactivated it last year.
According to the lawsuit, the damage inflicted by the online school isn’t virtual. The defendants took in more than $11 million. Furthermore, consumers paid for an education, only to learn that their diploma – while “printed on 60-lb parchment paper that is a full 8½ x 11 inches” – wasn’t accepted by most colleges or employers or the military.
The case is pending in Florida, where a federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order and frozen the defendants' assets. But there are lessons to be learned already. If you work with companies involved in online education, the first required course is Truth in Advertising 101. Substantiate your claims. Don’t make promises – express or implied – about job prospects, career credentials, or future success unless you have solid proof to back them up. If you’re a business person thinking about heading back to school, the FTC has tips on spotting possible diploma mills.