Kansas attorney general Carla Stovall filed suit last week against Leslie Edwin Snell, alleging he falsely advertised that his online Monticello University offered degrees accredited by official bodies in Kansas and other states.
The host for the site, Monticello.edu, disconnected the online university this weekend after a Kansas state judge issued a temporary restraining order against the site. Snell's whereabouts are unknown, a spokeswoman from the Kansas attorney general's office said.
The suit, filed in Johnson County District Court, alleges that about 200 people paid Snell between $2,000 and $8,000 for accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees. Monticello University, which also has gone by the name Thomas Jefferson University, is not accredited by any official agencies, the suit alleges.
The case so far has been relatively simple for prosecutors. Snell's residence, business headquarters, and Web host all were located in Kansas, making it easy for state lawyers to convince the courts they had the authority to prosecute the university.
But with search engines now listing hundreds of schools all over the world offering online courses, some people said Internet-based distance learning promises to tax traditional regulatory schemes in much the way that online pharmacies raise new legal concerns for health providers.
"The regulatory structure for education is very vague and really doesn't contemplate an era in which a degree-granting institution can be located anywhere in the world," said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who advises the American Bar Association on Internet education and related issues.
"In most instances [where there is a violation], you're going to have the person and the Web site located outside your state, and the enforcement mechanism in that set of circumstances is virtually nil," he added.
Colleges are regulated through a loose patchwork of state-based agencies that ultimately answer to the Education Department, said Geist, who added that the system may not be able to oversee the emerging distance-learning industry without some modifications.
Web sites that sell medicine and offer legal advice have raised similar concerns. Last month, for example, a House subcommittee held a hearing exploring whether online pharmacies are receiving proper oversight.
But regulators aren't the only ones affected by a system that never contemplated the Internet. Some online schools trying to offer accredited programs say they are also having a hard time operating under the old scheme.
"Any organization that is an alternative to traditional programs has to fight against preconceived notions" in obtaining accreditation, said Ellery Berryhill, a consultant with the American Institute for Computer Sciences, which has been trying to receive accreditation for the online computer classes it offers. "You have to work extra hard."
Berryhill said another worry online schools face is that a handful of illegitimate players will scare students away from distance learning altogether.
Susan Reilly, an accrediting coordinator with the Distance Education and Training Council, a Washington nonprofit that certifies distance-learning schools, said that online schools have mushroomed with the popularity of the Internet, which has raised its share of problems.
"It is very difficult to know whether the school is legit or not," Reilly said. "In a lot of ways it does come down to the consumer looking out for themselves."