Empty Honors

8 December 2004

Cat Earns MBA Online, Pennsylvania Sues “University”

Colby Nolan applied for a bachelor’s degree from Trinity Southern University, an online institution of higher learning. The university awarded Colby an executive MBA after receiving a $299 payment and reviewing Colby’s resume, which included experience like baby-sitting and retail management. A transcript showed a GPA of 3.5 with coursework despite the fact that university offers no classes. Unfortunately for the people at TSU, Colby Nolan is a 6-year-old cat owned by Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert. A lawsuit has been filed.

The case involves even more than that. Allegations of misappropriating internet addresses and the like are included and the full details are here and Mr. Pappert’s news release is here. What is truly annoying, disappointing and otherwise bad is the large number of online universities that are, pure and simple, jokes.

According to its website, “TSU gives qualifying adults the opportunity to convert what is learned in life a college degree, whether that knowledge is from professional or other accomplishments, work, religious or military training, or other sources.” It is not the only one that does so, and while some are quite above board (The Open University’s online branch in the UK and the University of Phoenix in the US have very good reputations), others are frauds.

But, as the old saw has it, there wouldn’t be supply if there weren’t demand. And the demand for such degrees is a cultural problem that appears to have no solution. Many of these offers are meant for entertainment purposes; their websites usually say “not accredited,” and if people want to pay for a joke degree as a gag gift, no harm is done. In those cases where the idea is to deceive employers and others about one’s education, though, a great deal of harm exists.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he had originally hoped students would come, learn and leave as and when they desired. No degrees would be awarded because knowledge, not a sheepskin, was the product on offer. America’s third president could be an awfully naïve man. TSU and its ilk are just the opposite, and its customers are no better, the degree without the work (and therefore, one suspects without the knowledge, no matter how clever a pussycat Colby Nolan is).

Empty honors based on no effort or improvement aren’t confined to academia; military phonies are even worse, but much harder to perpetrate. The American academic system, though, is a simple thing to undermine as it is already suffering from diminished expectations. As Clive James said, it is based on the premise that “Everyone has a right to a university degree in America, even if it's in Hamburger Technology.” And now, thanks to the internet, anyone anywhere in the world can have a meaningless degree.

© Copyright 2004 by The Kensington Review, J. Myhre, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent.