Type the words "registered dietitian" into the Google search engine, and you're likely to see an advertisement at the top of the Web page directing you to Kaplan University's degree in nutrition science.
The problem: You can't become a registered dietitian just by earning that degree at Kaplan Inc., a for-profit institution owned by the Washington Post Company.
More troublesome, say some students who have enrolled in Kaplan's program, is that they don't find that out until they've spent or borrowed thousands of dollars to take courses. In fact, the online college is not accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education. Without that accreditation, students who earn the degree from Kaplan can't get a dietetic internship or take the commission's exam, which is required in many states to become a licensed dietitian.
The problem is being highlighted this week by the Change.org Web site, which promotes progressive social issues and is hosting an online petition asking Kaplan and its parent company to fix practices the petitioners believe to be unethical and misleading, or shut the university down.
The issue has also led the American Dietetic Association, the parent organization of the commission, to take the unusual step of warning students on its Web site that degrees from Kaplan and 11 other colleges are not approved by the commission.
The association posted the list about a year ago after a growing number of students who had taken courses at unaccredited institutions complained their colleges had told them they could take the certification exam, said Ulric K. Chung, the commission's executive director. While there have been complaints about other institutions, the list is composed of colleges whose names came up most frequently, Mr. Chung said. In addition, the association was concerned because a Google search of "registered dietitian" would return advertisements for unaccredited programs, such as Kaplan's, he said.
Others on the association's list of nonaccredited programs include American InterContinental University, Capella University, and the University of Phoenix, though none of those institutions offers programs in nutrition or dietetics. On Thursday, the commission removed Walden University its list of nonaccredited programs after learning that it offered no studies related to nutrition or dietetics.
Kaplan officials said they routinely inform students that their program is not accredited by the dietetic commission "before enrollment and during their program."
"We ask students proactively to acknowledge that they understand we are not CADE-accredited, and that information is included in our student catalog," Ron Iori, senior vice president for communications at Kaplan Inc., said in an e-mail on Thursday. "In addition, the call scripts used by admissions advisers make it clear that this program does not qualify a student to become a registered dietician," he wrote.
Nuanced Meaning of Accreditation
Casey Hetherington, 27, was one student who told Change.org she was misled. After finding the Kaplan program in a Web search, she said, she called the college and asked what she needed to become a registered dietitian in New York, where she lives.
Ms. Hetherington said she was originally told that Kaplan was "properly accredited." In fact, Kaplan is accredited as an institution by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools—one of the nation's six federally recognized regional accreditors—which qualifies its students to receive federal financial aid.
But about a year after she enrolled, she asked her adviser about doing an internship, and she said she was told that the program was not accredited so it couldn't place her in an internship.
"I didn't really know what the proper accreditations were," Ms. Hetherington said. "I thought they would tell me."
Ms. Hetherington told The Chronicle that she dropped out of the program at Kaplan but is still paying off an estimated $15,000 that she borrowed for the courses she took. She is now working as an office manager for a dental practice and is enrolled in an online dietetics program at Eastern Michigan University, which has the proper accreditation from the dietetics commission.
Officials at Eastern Michigan University say they are also very familiar with situations like Ms. Hetherington's.
"It's a huge problem," said Julie K. Uranis, program manager for EMU-Online.
"When Kaplan students have these issues, then they start digging into the accreditation issue. Then they find us," she said.
While Eastern Michigan doesn't have an agreement to accept Kaplan credits, it tries to accommodate them without jeopardizing its own accreditation, she said. For example, if a student earns a bachelor's degree in nutrition science from Kaplan, the university will provisionally accept the student in a related master's-degree program, usually requiring some extra classes, depending on the student's overall academic history.
"There's a reason they're not accredited" by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education, she said, "and we are."