Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, September 2, 2013

Un-Universities: Don't Waste Your Money on Their Degrees or Their Graduates

Diploma mills, “wannabe unis”, or un-universities--   whatever you call them, we seem always to have with us on the Internet organizations that will sell what appears to be evidence of undergraduate, master’s, even doctoral degrees in range of subjects. They claim to be accredited, and no doubt are--  by an accrediting board of their own devising. They rake in a chunk of their clients’ hard-earned money (although of course nothing like the cost of taking years to work on a legitimate degree) and provide in return documents that are easily identified as fraudulent by any knowledgeable reader. Unfortunately, they don’t just defraud their clients, but enable those clients to work a similar trick on the unsophisticated purchaser of their ill-trained services.   

A reader recently sent me some correspondence he had had with Ashwood University ( about a doctoral degree (“with thesis”). Wikipedia clearly identifies Ashwood as an unaccredited organization that provides degrees on the basis of life experience. Life experience evaluation is not always fraudulent, as witness New Jersey’s Thomas Edison College; an individual who has worked in bookkeeping may have mastered the material of a first accounting course, and someone who has worked under supervision with young children may have mastered information that would be learned in an introductory course about early childhood education. However, when an organization claims to evaluate life experience at the level of an undergraduate education, not to speak of a doctorate that would normally require 2 years or more of work after a master’s degree and the writing of a dissertation, it becomes difficult to imagine how any life experience could possibly provide an equivalent. (Unless, I suppose, you are one of the Rothschilds and carried out research privately following a private education.)

Material at confirms the Wikipedia assessment of Ashwood. Ashwood is not accredited by the Council on Higher Education or the U.S. Department of Education. (Incidentally, one of the ways you can know whether a U.S. institution is accredited is to examine its website to see whether students are eligible for loans or grants for which the FAFSA application is required. Unaccredited institutions cannot correctly state that their students are eligible.) Although many un-universities state that they are accredited, the real question is, accredited by whom? Accreditation by a shadowy self-appointed accrediting agency is for practical purposes not actual accreditation. The geteducated site points out that several states have specifically noted that Ashwood is not what it makes itself out to be.

The geteducated site also noted that there are two genuine, accredited, distance learning institutions with similar names: Ashford University of Iowa and Ashworth University of Georgia. It’s characteristic of un-universities to choose names that resemble those of respectable institutions--  for example, “Columbus” sounds all right to people who are really thinking of “Columbia”.

The reader who sent me his correspondence with Ashwood had asked the organization about a doctoral degree (I don’t know what the subject was to be). Here was part of the reply, apparently written by someone who had no editor at hand:

“This is in reference to your doctorate degree. As you do understand that the documents were awarded to you on the basis of your working experience and you never wrote any thesis to earn this degree but traditionally a student has to write thesis and do a lot of research to earn a PhD or Doctorate degree, that is why we wrote thesis on your behalf and forwarded them to the relevant authorities and on the basis of which you will get a Thesis approval letter for the  Doctorate degree and it will also be Notarized, Attested and legalized for you to easily use it. Traditionally, when a student is awarded with a thesis approval letter he/she also needs to get his/her title of “DOCTOR (Dr) and PhD” registered in front of his/her name, but as per your records this formality is not yet completed, that is why we need to get your title registered as Dr xxxxxx PhD with the higher authorities for you to officially use it with your name on your business cards, resume, driving license, passport etc. this will be the last requirement as far as your Academic profile is concerned and once this process is completed there will be no requirements from you whatsoever. This requirement is mandatory for the Educational Department and once this process is completed you will  receive your documents in the next 25-30 days time.”

The paragraph above is absolutely sic except that I omitted a number of uses of bold print. Capitals and the paucity of punctuation marks are as I found them.

I must say that this Ashwood statement gave me some degree of pause. Do they think I have a real doctorate, I wonder, even though I did, in the traditional manner, write my own thesis? I have never had any title “registered” and would not know who the higher authorities who do this might be. My diploma and the signatures of my dissertation committee were never Notarized or Attested or even legalized, yet I have “easily” used them to get jobs since I was 25 years old. As for using my degree on a business card--  I can do that, and so can anyone else, whether they have such a degree or not, as long as they do not use it to defraud. I could have named my cat Dr. Hicks Mercer and did once have a pet named James B. Klee, Ph.D. but informally referred to as J.B. (For that matter, there is the story of Dr. Zoe D. Katze, a handsome animal who became a diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association, but that’s a different kind of fraud.)

By the way, I wonder whether communications like this letter from Ashwood are responsible for people calling or even signing themselves Dr. Naïve Person Ph.D. You don’t need both! The name is followed by Ph.D., and the degree-holder may be addressed as Dr. Person, but probably should not be in situations where someone needs first aid. I feel suspicious when I see this redundant use of the credential.

However, back to our Ashwoods. The Ashwood un-university has posted a rejoinder to criticism at Cleverly and deceptively, they have chosen that “scam” title to make it appear that the site contains further negative evaluation--  but it doesn’t. On the contrary, it reports “research” showing that Ashwood is legit. This consists of a survey asking two questions: a) Do you think Ashwood University is a diploma mill?  And b) Is Ashwood University scam or not? (sic, as usual). The conclusion was that 99.9% of an unspecified number of Ashwood degree recipients thought Ashwood was fine.  So, “Research shows that it is safe to take degree from Ashwood University. Though there are negative feedback but satisfied people won the argument. Myths surface when you are don’t know something and believe rumors. This document must have helped considerably in removing misconceptions that you may have about Ashwood University.” (And indeed it did help considerably; I hadn’t realized quite how bad it was.)

Why is it a problem that organizations like Ashwood offer faux advanced degrees? The thing is that however feeble and silly some dissertation titles sound to the general public, in fact one learns a great deal in the course of writing such a document. The only comparable “life experience” would be writing a professional book or long journal article and having it reviewed, revised, edited, and published, which only a very few people do without having first earned an advanced degree (and those who do so can be respected and employed without that degree). It is almost invariably the case that a person who has not written a dissertation in a subject knows much less about the subject than someone who has done the study and writing.

In addition, there are some very special considerations when an individual has bought a degree (from $1399 at Ashwood, it appears) that puts him or her in a position to deal with others’ mental illness or social problems. Not only does the student at a legitimate university learn much in the way of scholarly work, but he or she also receives the mentoring of highly qualified people in the field, and is required to master the ethical guidelines accepted in a profession. I myself would not care to put myself under the treatment of a psychologist or clinical social worker who had avoided the intensive training in professional conduct that is part of training in an accredited institution. I would also be most concerned about the ability of such a practitioner to understand the evidence that does or does not support the safety and efficacy of a treatment.

The morals of the story are these: if you are tempted to appear to qualify for a job by buying a degree, please realize that you may well be identified as cheating, and your money will not be refunded to you when things don’t work out as planned. (Besides, what if they taught you to write like that Ashwood paragraph!)  If you are a person looking for a psychotherapist and you see that a person’s degree is not from a legitimate university, no matter how nice and sympathetic you think he or she is—look elsewhere, and do this especially if you are seeking treatment not for yourself but for a child or some other dependent person. That practitioner is attempting to defraud you and other potential clients.

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