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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

False Promises: Unraveling the Labyrinth of Fake Jobs and Online Universities

online university bait-n-switch, part 2In my previous post, I talked about getting bushwhacked by an online university promoter in the middle of what I'd been told was a job interview. Not long after, the “online university that's right for me,” Capella University, started hounding me with daily recruitment calls and spamming my inbox. I figured I'd dodged a bullet by not signing on with Capella and their insidious financing options. What I didn't realize was that I'm walking around in a war zone with a target painted across my chest.

While media pundits argue back and forth about whether or not this is a recession, the rest of us are living in this economy and it doesn't look good. Costs are rising, jobs are scarce, and those of us who took equity loans against our houses are starting to feel cold breath on the backs of our necks. I've been looking for work for a few months now, and it's starting to feel like my full time job is sorting the real opportunities from the scam artists trying to make a quick buck off my desperation.

The worst of these parasitic, for-profit outfits are the online universities. It's not that they plaster their ads all over craigslist.org, monster.com and every other site that hungry job-seekers frequent. That's what advertisers do. No, the thing that separates them from other businesses that just want to make a buck are these proxy sites they use to draw you in, sites with names like “Career Network” and “The Career Selection,” when all these sites seem to be doing is foisting their partner companies on you.

It starts as soon as you find the job ad. You get diverted to careernetwork.com or one of its similarly named, carefully disguised sister-sites. You fill out a job application that seems real enough (and may, in fact, be forwarded to a prospective employer, though why any legitimate employer would pepper their application with questions like, “Would you like information on how to increase your credit score?” is hard to figure). Then you get hit with the first innocuous question:

We value and support higher education. If you would like information about educational opportunities in your field, choose below.
I would like to receive information about higher-education opportunities.
I do not feel I would benefit from educational opportunities at this time.


In this economy, the difference between getting the job and getting left in the cold will come down to who has the most impressive resume. If you don't have a college degree and you're out there, trying to make ends meet, you know most employers place a premium on applicants with a degree. All the best jobs require an Associate's Degree or a Bachelor's from a four-year school, and if you have a degree, like me, and are still struggling to find something that pays, you're thinking about how much easier it would be if you'd stayed in school for your Master's Degree. The first time someone asked me if I consider higher education if I could afford it, I answered honestly, and you saw how that turned out.

This time I checked the second box. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll apply to Grad School the old-fashioned way and beg the Stafford Loan people for money if I can't make it with my BA. I submitted my information, sans educational opportunities, and started on the next page of the application. Along with the standard employability questions (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”, “Do you have a valid driver's license?”), I was also asked more troubling questions like how I would rate my credit score, followed by the question I mentioned earlier, asking whether I wanted to learn how to increase my credit score. It seemed like every third question on the application was trying to get me to bite on some other service or advertising partner, including yet another offer to find out more about higher education opportunities. I answered no to all the fishing questions, except the last, which was an offer to tell me about other jobs that matched my resume.

In just a few hours, I received this email:
Dear Christopher,

I recently noticed the credentials listed on your electronic resume. I believe you might be a solid candidate for a Family Interviewer opening I seek to fill. Your previous experience with education is outstanding. I would like to invite you to apply for this job. Below you can find some basic information regarding the opportunity.

Family Interviewer

Excellent Income with long term career growth

An ideal candidate will have exceptional verbal skills, along with dedication to the job. To view a detailed description of the job and to apply online, please click the link below. If your browser does not allow you to click the link, you may copy and paste it into your browser. The link will take you to an informative Web page with requirements and compensation packages.

http://thecareer-selection.com/

Our human resources department will go over your application and contact you within 24 to 48 hours. When they contact you, please be prepared to schedule an initial interview.

Best Regards,
Brittany Harmon
Sr. Recruiter, HR Division


I was incredibly excited. After leaving my information on a handful of these online employment sites, finally here was a tangible result. But then I started wondering why I had to apply for the job if they already had my electronic resume. Was it some sort of standard formality? I didn't want to chance losing the job, so I clicked on the link. I'd been horribly disappointed when one of the applications I filled out earlier turned out to be a front for Career Network, who scammed me the first time and got me onto Capella University's Do-Call-and-Stalk list. This was a different website, with an entirely different look surrounding the ad-copy for the job. Maybe this one was for real.

Then, I saw it down at the bottom of the page, that same question about whether I wanted to know more about higher education opportunities. I couldn't escape these people wherever I went looking for work. Then I filled out the rest of the application, dodged even more suspicious questions that would have sent my personal information to even more advertising partners, but I was in for a nasty surprise. After I submitted the application, the site shed its false window dressing and revealed itself as Career Network. I wasn't submitting a new application, I was navigating the same advertisement-saturated employment maze that I'd already been through. The job offer was just one more attempt to get me to say yes to online education and whatever other products they could push on me.

So far, I had applied for a teaching assistant position at a private school, a legal clerk position, and the intriguing but probably BS position of “Family Interviewer,” with all three leading me on a wild goose chase through Career Network and their partners in the online university industry. I was tired of this nonsense and wanted some answers. Was Career Network even a real employment company, or were all of these job ads the cruelest kind of spam imaginable?

Judge for yourself. In 2001, Career Network was cited by the Federal Trade Commission in an ongoing investigation of employment corporations exploiting unemployed workers with false job postings that promised government jobs. From www.ftc.gov:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced five law enforcement actions against nine companies and seven individuals promising jobs with the federal or state government or the U.S. Postal Service. Through classified ads, telephone pitches, Internet advertising and training school seminars, the companies misled consumers into paying $45 - $80 for practice exams and application forms.

[...]

Career Network, Inc., and its principals, Walter Turulis and Kathleen Key. Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, on January 3, 2001. On January 3, 2001, the court granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order, asset freeze, and appointment of a temporary receiver. On January 9, 2001, the court entered stipulated preliminary injunction, continuing the terms of the TRO. Civil Action No: 2:01-CV-001-JM; FTC Staff Contact: Gregory A. Ashe, Bureau of Consumer Protection, 202-326-3719.


Seven years later, Career Network seems to have made a remarkable comeback from its receivership, either by starting over or selling its name to a new company in the career-making business. If they were ripping off people in 2001, who's to say they aren't running a new scam now, one that borders close enough to legality that they can operate with impunity and continue posting false job leads that hand unsuspecting applicants into the hands of online universities who offer the perfect solution to their job woes: a fully-financed college education.

The lengths to which these online universities will go to acquire new students and the money that they'll generate borders on the absurd. They must be paying a small fortune to Career Network, hiding their hooks in every job application on not one but two pages of the application, and that's not the only place where they go trolling for fresh fish.

The owners of this blog informed me that Allied University, an online university, recently contacted them with the following offer:

Hi, we are willing to sponsor specific content, online degree post on your blog.

We, advertiser will create content and you will only need to post it.

Please let me know details about your terms of service and handles payment.


I can think of no better advertisement for the quality of an online university education than that.

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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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