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Friday, September 05, 2008

Would You Like a Free Degree With That? The Online University Bait-and-Switch

bait-n-switchHow would you like to earn a doctorate in record time, or a master's degree in less than a year? Sounds great, right? And think of the convenience to you when you discover that you don't even have to look for a university that offers these phenomenal program, they'll come right to you, sometimes while you're interviewing for a job.

If you've spent any time hunting for jobs online, you've probably answered an ad or two that sent you to a company like Career Network, where you had to sign up for an account in order to send your resume to the job poster. I found an ad through Yahoo Hot Jobs for a teaching assistant position at a private school I'd never heard of. Private schools often pay better than public schools, so I tried to apply. I was redirected to www.careernetworkjobs.com and asked to register with the site for my resume to be considered for the job. A little bit of a hassle, but I was willing to spend a few minutes filling out yet another application. I uploaded my resume and, within a few days, Career Network left two garbled messages on my phone about a job interview (from an out-of-state area code) and an email that said, "After reviewing your application we have determined that you meet our initial employment requirements."

I was a little unclear on whether I'd gotten the job or not, so I called the number that left the two cryptic messages and was transferred from New York State to an employment pre-screener in Orlando, who explained that his company was contracted to interview prospective employees and send the best applicants on to the next stage of the interview process. It was like being on a strange game show where the only questions you get asked are your name, address, and "Do you have plans to continue your education?" I confirmed my information and said, sure, I'd love to continue my education if I could afford it, who wouldn't? Not only did this get me to the next round of the interview process, I activated the special bonus round, and the pre-interviewer said,

"You sound like someone who cares a lot about his education, so I tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to transfer you to someone at one of our partner companies who can find an online, accredited university that can offer you financial aid and help you finish your education."


Perhaps I should have been skeptical. I'd never been on a job interview that offered me higher education before, not even on a pre-interview. I certainly liked the sound of what they were offering. I'd exhausted most of my financial aid options getting my bachelor degree, and it was fast approaching the time when Sallie Mae would be asking what her investment in me had produced, aside from an out-of-work English teacher.

A new voice came on the line, and I was introduced to a no-nonsense woman from Education Connection, a company that would find me the perfect online university. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted a degree in. A master's in Psychology? No problem. She found just the school for me, with exactly the program I was looking for, at Capella University. Someone from admissions would be contacting me within the week, she said, and that was the end of the call.

It was a little strange to me that I'd called to interview for a teaching assistant job and somehow ended up applying to an online university, so I googled Capella University to see what I'd gotten myself into. Capella University was, according to my research, an accredited university. They even had a website with an .edu domain, something which most diploma mills, for-profit scam factories that take your money and give you a degree without even pretending to offer a legitimate education, couldn't manage. Was it possible to be an accredited university and still be a scam?

I asked a friend of mine who recently earned a master's degree the hard way, defending her thesis in front of a room full of professors, and she said, "It's been my experience that most online universities aren't taken seriously by the academic community." Keith L., a business professional on Yahoo Answers had this to say about job applicants with online universities on their resumes,

"...Given two applicants were equal, I would almost always give the edge to someone who went to a reputable school over someone [who got a degree from an online university] like Walden University. It’s easily the lowest rung of higher education out there. Maybe someone can create a Tier 5 for them to inhabit."


There are easily thousands of people online who claim to be working hard on their Capella University classes, and others who've earned degrees from online schools like this who believe they worked hard for them, but you'll find just as many students who felt cheated and ripped off by their online school, especially when they find out their school retains faculty that earned their degrees at schools like Lacrosse University, which is fully unaccredited as opposed to merely questionable. Disgruntled students from Capella University report being locked out of their online classrooms for spurious reasons, failing without explanation from their professors, and having additional fees sneak onto their tuition bill after being hounded by snake-oil selling admission counselors day and night to earn a degree at Capella.

It's been over a week since I was "interviewed" for that job, and I've heard nothing from the school that posted the ad, if they ever existed in the first place. On the other hand, I've gotten two or three calls from Capella university every day and just as many emails touting the school's excellent financing options. When I was considering attending the University of South Florida, no one called to try and sell me on the school. When I was thinking about buying a new car, on the other hand, dealers fell over each other to get in touch with me and convince me they had the best financing, but even a used car salesman won't barrage you with phone calls like an online university.

The worst part is that for many people of limited means, online universities dangle the dream of a college degree and full financial aid, never letting on that most employers will consider that degree a joke, even if you did work your tail off for it. Not every online university is a diploma mill, but it's absolutely true that a degree from a university that is entirely based online will not carry the same weight as a traditional degree. And how could they, when the schools that offer them do their recruiting with phony bait-and-switch job ads and daily phone and email spamming until you talk to one of their admission counselors/salespeople?

If you really value your education, do yourself a favor and get an associate degree from your local community college and financial aid through their financial aid counselors. Then apply to a real brick and mortar university as a transfer student. Don't get suckered by free financing and a new set of radial tires.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Dude Where's My Car?...Seriously

I woke up in a hurry knowing that I only had about 45 minutes to get ready. That's 45 minutes for my daughter and me to bath, dress, do our hair, eat, grab everything we needed and get out the door - not a second to waste or spare. We made it, but going towards the parking lot it took me a few seconds to realize that something was missing. I kept walking though because I was certain my eyes were playing tricks on me. Yet, when I reached our parking spot our truck definitely was not in it, nor was it anywhere else in the parking lot. Way to start the day.

My initial shock quickly turned to frustration once I realized what had happened. Our financing company (the powers hereby known as HSBC) had sent someone out to repo our truck, when just days before they were on the phone reassuring my husband that we would be in the clear as long as they got some kind of payment. I think back now and realize that when they were asking him to 'update' his information, they were actually confirming our address and then waited until the day he deployed to come out. So there I sat, husband having just left, a million things to do that day, no transportation, and certainly nowhere near the almost $3,000 I knew we owed on the note. Plus, I kept wondering how I was going to tell my husband that his prized Harley Davidson edition F150, that he had worked so hard for and loved more than me, was gone.

I had half a mind to let them keep it because we could never really afford the thing to begin with. I couldn't let it go though because they said there would be no repo if we could send a payment and make arrangements for the rest, which we did. I spend the rest of that first day making phone calls to see who had taken the truck, why, where it was and how much they would accept to at least get it back. It didn't really surprise me that I got the runaround and for some odd reason no one knew anything except that we owed them money. Day two was spent doing the same thing, this time with a little more success. The representative I was working with told me he could keep the truck from going up for auction, but the kicker was that I had to give him $2,000 and he could only guarantee the offer for two weeks. I thought that was outrageous since 1) they shouldn't have taken it to begin with after what they said and 2) if we could afford to give them that much then the note wouldn't be past due. Needless to say, day three was spent calling around and begging my family for money and luckily I was able to scrounge up what I needed. Day four, I called up the company and arranged for payment in hopes of having them release the vehicle back to me. Once this was done, they gave me the information for the impound lot and this is where the real fun began.

If you noticed, everything I just described took place over the course of about four days. The next day I went to the company that took the vehicle, paperwork in hand, thinking I was on the way to pick it up. Turns out that it wasn't there, and according to paperwork the company had on file it was transported to the auction lot in North Carolina two days after it arrived at their facility (we lived in Virginia at the time, about 4 hours away from where it was taken to). I don't think the word upset is enough to describe what I felt like at the time. After a verbal battle with the employees there, I was able to get about half of the contents of what was in the vehicle, information for the auction company, signed some papers and high-tailed it right back home to give a piece of my mind to Mr. HSBC representative. This guy assured me that the truck would be safe and kept from auctioning for two weeks, not knowing that while I was talking to him the first time, the vehicle was already on its way to another state. He proceeded to tell me that he had made me no promises and that my payment was good enough to keep the truck from actually being auctioned but not from being transported to the auction site. How much sense did that make, really? After some more time on the phone, he agreed to send over the necessary paperwork and it was up to me to and make sure all was well from there. By this time, it was the end of the business day so I had to wait yet another day.

First thing the following day, I called the auction company and went though the whole rigmarole to get the truck officially released and ready for pickup. To make a long story even longer, I was told that I had no authorization from the finance company to do anything and only the owner could come down and claim the vehicle (it was in my husband's name). So I had to contact the HSBC rep, once again, who had the nerve to tell me that he had NO IDEA that I had intentions to pick up the vehicle myself, which is why I didn't have any kind of authorization. I asked him how he figured I wasn't going to pick the vehicle up if I was the spouse of the owner, had paid him every dime we had, went through all that hassle and had previously informed him that the owner was away on a deployment. I shamefully admit that we argued about this for about 15 minutes before he transferred me to a supervisor at which point I just got off the phone. In the end, and after they received every piece of paperwork imaginable, had exhausted all their excuses and wasted enough time, I was able to get a friend of mine to take a road trip with me to go pick up the prize.

Here we are about a year later still struggling to keep up with these payments and wondering when they will strike again if we're even a day late. There's no convincing my husband to consider trading the truck for something more manageable because it's his and he's determined to get it paid off to show these people that he can. He financed it for about $28,000 and is paying $650/month with an interest rate well over 14.5%. No one will refinance with us for lower rates and payments, and no matter how much we pay it seems like the balance owed is always $2,000+. It's insane and there's no light at the end of this tunnel.

Cars and car loans are much more attainable these days, even with some bumps and bruises on your credit. A person could be denied for a $500 personal loan, but then turn around and get a $10-15K car loan (I can vouch for this from personal experience). This can be a positive advantage for those who really are in need but don't have the best credit record; yet it could also be a trap that causes people to dig themselves further into the hole with debt and no help or hope of getting out. The lessons to be learned here are always pay your bills on time, of course, but also never bite off more than you can chew. This way you stand less of a chance of running into a situation where you can't pay on something. When it comes to leasing and financing, always be aware of what you are getting yourself into by knowing and fully understanding the terms, rates, payments and any other important details and fine print.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Alternative Lending Sources

What is the proper measure for creditworthiness in this day and age?

Apparently, it is no longer simply the credit report or the verdict of one's local banking institution. There are so many individuals who fall short of traditional standards of creditworthiness that the marketplace has naturally made room for non-traditional lenders. Besides the controversial subprime mortgage lending industry that most people are by now familiar with, there is a increasung trend in person-to-person lending organizations. Websites like Prosper.com facilitate lending transactions between individuals and other single or small group benefactors. Using such a service empowers people who may not otherwise receive loan funding to finance their dreams and goals.

I am still not sure how I feel about the rise in alternative lending resources. At first glance it looks great; power to the people, right? There is no reason why deserving people should have to remain at the mercy of the big bad traditional financial institutions, right? I'm not so sure that pumping more loans into the pipeline is the answer. Then again, I am one of the few who believes that people should begin to move away from financing instead of toward it. If enough people renounced the borrowing lifestyle and stopped applying for loans, the market would respond with more competetive rates and terms. Then we wouldn't need many of these alternative lending options.

Wouldn't that be something?

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