Debate over usefulness of online high school diplomas

NEPTUNE, N.J. (AP) — Edward Ervin knew within weeks of receiving his online high school "diploma" that something was wrong, but he never imagined that his months of hard work were in vain.

The 27-year-old Jackson man, who never finished high school, enrolled in an online diploma program through Rutgers University. The program was similar to others he had seen endorsed by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development as well as the New Jersey State Library.

When doors of opportunity started closing, however, Ervin soon learned that his so-called diploma was virtually worthless in New Jersey — even though the Labor Department backed the online effort through more than $146,000 in scholarship grants.

Indeed, online high school diplomas are recognized by neither the New Jersey Department of Education nor state licensing boards.

"Why was this (program) released and it's not working?" Ervin described the program as a waste of time and money. "I've just been having a lot of anxiety with this."

The state Department of Labor awarded the New Jersey State Library $146,475 for scholarships for online high school diploma programs. The program is part of eight grants totaling $958,163 that promote literacy skills among New Jersey adults, said Amanda E. Pisano, communications coordinator for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

From the program's launch, librarians at the state library knew the diploma programs were not recognized by the Department of Education, said Peggy Cadigan, deputy statewide librarian for innovation and strategic partnership.

"Our concern was not whether or not the program was validated by agencies of secondary education," Cadigan said in a prepared statement. "We were focused on prepping students for what comes next."

But why did Rutgers, the Labor Department and the state library leave students like Ervin with the impression that they were offering online diplomas that would be recognized by the state? Governor's Office officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State Department of Education officials make plain that online high school diplomas are not valid in New Jersey.

There are only three routes recognized by the Department of Education through which adults in New Jersey who did not complete high school can get an equivalent credential. They must pass one of three tests: the GED, the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or the High School Equivalency Test.

"Online high schools are not approved under NJDOE policy," David Saenz Jr., deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, wrote in an email to an Asbury Park Press reporter.

There are also 14 adult high schools throughout New Jersey, though none of them is located in Monmouth or Ocean counties.

The state's policy surprised Ervin.

He spent months working on a diploma program through Career Online High School, which is administered through a Florida-based company called Smart Horizons. Ervin paid Rutgers $1,495 to participate.

In May 2012, Rutgers' Center for Continuing Professional Development promoted the program as "accredited" and as a way for adults to earn their high school diplomas.

In March, after finishing his computer coursework and tests in math, English, science, history and other subjects, Ervin received what he thought was a valid diploma. His satisfaction was short-lived.

Ervin applied to two schools — a hairdressing school in Ocean Township and a Paul Mitchell cosmetology school in Mercer County. Both questioned the validity of his credentials.

That's when he learned his online diploma was recognized by neither the state Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling nor the Department of Education.

"I don't know why they released a program that wasn't recognized by the (State) Board of Education," Ervin said.

It's unclear exactly how many adults in New Jersey have signed up for online high school diploma programs. Since 2011, four students participated in the program through Rutgers, though only one completed it, said E.J. Miranda, a spokesman for the university.

Rutgers has since stopped promoting online high school diplomas and promised to refund Ervin's money.

The New Jersey State Library used its $146,475 grant from the Department of Labor to give 125 scholarships for online high school diplomas at six libraries, said Cadigan, the librarian. The scholarships were designed to help motivated adults who never finished high school prepare for college, she said.

Currently, there are no more scholarships available, she said.

Cadigan said the library supported the program because it was accredited by two school-accrediting agencies and is recognized by corporations such as Walmart and Taco Bell. Other states also offer and support online high school diplomas, she said.

"We would love to see the Department of Education validate or certify this program," said Cadigan. "We think it's legitimate, and we think it's the wave of the future."

Kerri H. Gatling, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the literacy grant that funded the scholarships has not been renewed.

"The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) seeks innovative ways to assist New Jersey adults to obtain the basic skills they need to advance their careers," she wrote in an email. "While LWD has not provided additional funding to this program, we are committed to working with program graduates to help them find jobs, transition to one of the state's community colleges or complete a state-approved high school equivalency test if necessary.

High school diplomas, obtained online or otherwise, are not required to apply to New Jersey community colleges. Jacob Farbman, communications director at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges, said students who apply must have a high school degree or be 18 years old or older.

"There are a number of students we enroll with a GED or having not completed high school," he said.

Many students like Ervin gravitate toward the flexibility of online coursework, which they can fit around jobs and family responsibilities. Howard Leibman, superintendent of Smart Horizon's Career Online High School program, is asking New Jersey officials to recognize Ervin's coursework and similar programs.

In August, Leibman petitioned the state Department of Education to change its rules and recognize online diplomas of applicants to New Jersey licensing boards. In the petition, he urged the state Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling to recognize high school diplomas and transcripts from institutions that are regionally or nationally accredited through an agency recognized by the U.S. secretary of education, "regardless of instructional modality."

"I understand what Edward's frustration is," said Leibman. "The whole concept is relatively in its infancy."

The department, however, dismissed the petition, saying that neither the State Board of Education nor the commissioner of education had the authority to amend the state's administrative code, which sets the requirements.

So far, the online diploma has been nothing but a hindrance for Ervin.

He wants to be a hairstylist, but in a letter dated July 1, the Board of Cosmetology — which licenses hair dressers and barbers in New Jersey — told Ervin his diploma was not sufficient to become licensed.

Jay Malanga, executive director of the Board of Cosmetology, explained the state's requirements in a letter. He recommends that Ervin take the GED examination.

Not only is Ervin prevented from pursuing a job as a hairstylist, but his current job is in jeopardy. A recent promotion at a drugstore requires him to have a pharmacy technician's license, something he said he can obtain only with a valid high school diploma or equivalent certificate.

In the meantime, Ervin is looking into options to protect his drugstore management job and secure his future. He said he also wants to spare other people the waste of time and money he went through.

"It's not just me I feel bad for," he said. "It's everybody else who spent their money on that ... or people who were taking this through a library thinking that they were being helped."