Students Beware! Diploma Mills Still Exist
February 22nd, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
If it seems too good to be true that you can obtain a degree without going to class, well, it probably is. It may seem difficult to imagine that anyone could purchase a degree in this manner, especially with increased attention to accreditation and regulation of financial aid. However, diploma mills still exist – they offer degrees at for a substantially reduced investment and the transaction is often completed with a phone call or an email. The type of degree received is usually based upon a description of your life experience. All you need to provide is payment and suddenly you’re “qualified” for a new career, which is never a good idea to follow.
How extensive is the diploma mill problem? According to the article PhD, The Easy Way, published in the Chicago Tribune, it is estimated that 9,600 people may have bought fake degrees from a now shuttered St. Regis University in Washington state, and among the student roster were police officers and a Chicago Public Schools instructor. Several St. Regis employees pled guilty to fraud and that is only the tip of the phony degree iceberg.
In Diploma Mill Concerns Extend Beyond Fraud, George Gollin, a board member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an accrediting authority recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, noted that “it is difficult to pin down how many diploma mills exist, or how many bogus degrees are bought each year;” however, he estimates that at one time “companies sold 100,000 to 200,000 phony degrees a year.” The article also discusses how states enacted laws to tackle this issue and the mills respond by relocating to other states. The state of Oregon has taken the issue a step further and made it “a crime to use degrees from diploma factories named on a state Web site.” The Student Assistance Commission, Office of Degree Authorization, provides a list of unaccredited colleges.
Regulations Aimed at Diploma Mills
An article posted on Inside Higher Education, Taking Aim at Diploma Mills, has highlighted problems associated with addressing the problem of fake degrees: “in the United States and abroad, the phony diploma industry has remained remarkably resilient, fed by often weak regulatory oversight, a ready market of workers looking for easily attained credentials needed for career advancement – and, not unimportantly, unclear definitions of what a degree mill is that can make it difficult to crack down on them even when they are prosecuted.” The good news is that these issues may soon be addressed with pending legislation.
On May 5, 2011 Congressman Tim Bishop (D-NY01) submitted House Resolution 1758, the "Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act," to the 112th Congress, which has been referred to a committee for review. The Act would provide a mandate for the Federal Trade Commission to take action against diploma mills and report these organizations to the Secretary of Education, who in turn would provide a public announcement to alert potential students.
What this Act would also do is define a diploma mill as “any entity that (1) is not accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Education Department or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or authorized to grant postsecondary degrees by a state government (business licensure is not sufficient) and (2) offers degrees or other credentials for a fee but requires ‘little or no education or course work’ to gain that credential.”
At present the Federal Trade Commission protects consumers from deception. As noted by Reilly Dolan, a staff lawyer for the commission in Diploma Mill Calling: Continuing Ed Without the Ed, “diploma mills have become savvy enough not to deceive customers; such deceit would be a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.” This article shares a transcript of a conversation held with a diploma mill representative and throughout the conversation it was made clear what type of degree could be purchased. While the FTC could not take action for this scenario, their authority would be extended if the new Act is passed.
What to Look for When Searching for a Degree Program
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation provides a list of questions that potential students should ask when they are evaluating a school or degree program. Here are some of the questions:
• Can degrees be purchased?
• Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?
• Are few assignments required for students to earn credits?
• Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?
• Are the degrees available based solely on experience or resume review?
• Are there few requirements for graduation?
This is just a partial list and the following advice is given regarding these questions: “if answers to many of the questions are yes, the degree provider under consideration may be a mill.”
The Federal Trade Commission has also provided a set of indicators that can alert you to the possibility of talking to a diploma mill. As outlined in Diploma Mills: Degrees of Deception, these are some of the “tell-tale signs of a diploma mill:”
• “No Studies, No Exams — Get a Degree for Your Experience. Diploma mills grant degrees for ‘work or life experience’ alone. Accredited colleges may give a few credits for specific experience pertinent to a degree program, but not an entire degree.
• No Attendance. Legitimate colleges or universities, including online schools, require substantial course work.
• Flat Fee. Many diploma mills charge on a per-degree basis. Legitimate colleges charge by the credit, course, or semester, not a flat fee for an entire degree.
• No Waiting. Operations that guarantee a degree in a few days, weeks, or even months aren’t legitimate. If an ad promises that you can earn a degree very quickly, it’s probably a diploma mill.”
Consider the Importance of Accreditation
The U.S. Department of Education provides a very helpful explanation of accredited versus unaccredited institutions:
• “Attending an accredited institution is often a requirement for employment and can be helpful later on if you want to transfer academic credits to another institution.
• Unaccredited institutions are not reviewed against a set of standards to determine the quality of their education and training. This does not necessarily mean that an unaccredited institution is of poor quality, but earning a degree from an unaccredited institution may create problems for students. Some employers, institutions, and licensing boards only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.”
You can utilize the searchable database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to assist your evaluation of a potential school. You should consider choosing an accredited school as you will find standards of quality in place that address all aspects of the degree programs, from the financial aid process to course development.
John Bear, author of Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, was quoted in Diploma Mills Insert Degree of Fraud into Job Market, stating that “there are more than 400 diploma mills and 300 counterfeit diploma Web sites, and business is thriving amid a lackluster economy — doubling in the past five years to more than $500 million annually.” Bear provides information he develops about diploma mills to the FBI and other federal agencies to help detect fraud.
This is also a reminder that there is another important aspect of the diploma mill issue – the job market. An article in Wired Magazine, Phony Degrees a Hot Net Scam, indicates that “some say that although people who sign up for diploma mills may be defrauded, the real victims are unknowing employers and the public.” If you purchase a degree from a diploma mill, in an attempt to gain a job or a promotion, you may be putting your career in jeopardy. What explanation would you offer if your employer questioned the degree or the school? Most job applications have a fraud statement that you are required to sign prior to employment.
Diploma mills continue to thrive not just because of weak regulations in certain states – they exist because people are still purchasing these degrees. It should be a matter of common sense – if you don’t attend classes and you can order a degree within minutes, you haven’t earned your degree. While you may gain temporary benefits by boosting the credentials listed on your resume, in the long run you are asking for trouble because you and/or the mill is likely to be exposed. Are you willing to risk your reputation and possibly your career for a quick fix? I hope your answer is no.
Have you contacted a school you believed was a diploma mill? Share your experience via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
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