updated 2/8/2005 3:40:57 PM ET 2005-02-08T20:40:57

The campus of American Capital University has no tree-shaded quadrangle, no stately old buildings or libraries, no classrooms, no fraternity houses — not even a student curled up with a book in a quiet corner.

There’s just a middle-age man who sits at a computer in a tiny, undecorated, windowless office in the basement of a downtown building.

But in a sense, this fellow — Bill Allen, American Capital University’s chief academic officer — has lots of company: Wyoming licenses 10 other online schools that are not accredited by any mainstream organization and maintain only a token physical presence in the state.

Defenders of such schools say Wyoming is forward-thinking for accepting a relatively inexpensive way for working adults to get degrees in their spare time through mail and Internet courses. But others say the state has become a haven for diploma mills.

“People start to giggle if you say ‘Wyoming-licensed school,’ if you know about accreditation,” said George Gollin, a University of Illinois physics professor and crusader against diploma mills, schools that offer degrees for little or no academic work.

Because of loose state requirements, more online schools are popping up in Wyoming than anywhere else, according to Steven Crow, executive director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional school accreditation agency.

“Most other states have enough rigor in how they determine who can operate as a college and grant degrees that it’s not as easy for places to get started,” he said.

Neighbors
Cheyenne alone is home to six distance-learning schools, five within a few blocks of one another. A typical example is Paramount University of Technology, with a couple of offices in the basement of a sleepy downtown mall. At the end of the street, American City University occupies a couple rooms of an ornate, Victorian-era building that once housed a brothel.

Another school, Kennedy-Western University, was the focus of a U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation last year. At the school, only an open-book, multiple-choice test with 100 questions was required in a course on hazardous waste management; the same with environmental law and regulatory compliance.

“With just 16 hours of study, I had completed 40 percent of the course requirements for a master’s degree,” said Claudia Gelzer, a committee staffer.

Kennedy-Western spokesman David Gering said the committee did not invite the school to defend itself, and did not note that Kennedy-Western requires final papers, theses and dissertations of 100 to 200 pages. Moreover, 80 percent of Kennedy-Western’s professors hold doctorates from accredited universities, while the rest have master’s degrees from accredited schools, Gering said.

“In order for us to maintain our licensure, we have to offer a very academically rigorous program,” he said.

Wyoming’s private-school licensing laws say all faculty members must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, and at least half must have at least a master’s degree from an accredited school. The schools must maintain an office in the state, pay a $10,000 licensing fee and post a $100,000 performance bond.

Lawmaker: Accreditation not the answer
In December, state lawmakers abandoned a bill that would have required private schools to have proper accreditation by 2010. That was after two state senators were guests of Cheyenne-based Preston University on an expenses-paid trip to Preston campuses in Pakistan and Dubai.

One of the lawmakers, Democrat Kathryn Sessions, said she supports tougher rules for distance learning but does not think accreditation is necessarily the answer.

“I just don’t believe that the good should be thrown out with the bad,” she said. “I know how much money accrediting institutions charge universities and colleges — and I’m a little bit tired that they think they’re the end-all.”

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