Training Magazine, 1999, 36(6), pp. 48-53
"Increase your personal prestige and money-earning power through an advanced university degree.
"Eminent, nonaccredited universities will award you a degree for only $300.
"Degree granted based on your present knowledge and experience. No further effort necessary on your part."
Checked your e-mail lately? You might have found a similar message awaiting you. This come-on was sent to Randy Smith, a Minneapolis custom carpenter who already possesses a B.A. He hadn't been shopping online for a degree, nor is he in the market for additional academic credentials.
Smith didn't respond to the offer. But this kind of hard sell, to obtain a "B.A., M.A., M.B.A. or Ph.D. diploma in the field of your choice," by calling a particular number "24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Sundays and holidays," is typical of the brazenness that has come to characterize degree mills in the age of the Internet.
Diploma mills, which require candidates to do little or no work for postsecondary degrees, have been a nagging problem for years. But these sham institutions have multiplied recently, thanks primarily to the Internet. A number of legitimate schools and even prestigious universities now offer courses via the World Wide Web, and scam artists have discovered how easy it is to set up authentic-looking Web pages that gull unwary into assuming that the college portrayed is genuine and accredited. There is no way to tell "real" distance-education schools from degree mills simply by examining the Web site. The Internet also has made these phony institutions more accessible, both to innocents and to those deliberately shopping for a bogus degree.
A String of Victims
Suppose you are looking over the resumes of some job applicants. Here's one with an M.B.A. from Clemson College. Here's another with a master's degree in marketing from Loyola State University. Impressive, yes?
Clemson College is not the respected school in Clemson, SC - that's Clemson University. And Loyola State U. bears no relation at all to the Loyola University that was established in 1870 and operates on a pastoral campus in Chicago. Both Clemson College and Loyola State are tagged as degree mills in the book Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Non-traditionally. Its co-author, John Bear, has been tracking degree mills for 25 years. His book, updated annually, lists more than 250 institutions - not all currently operating - that have been identified as degree mills.
Bear says the Internet has given a big boost to degree-mill operators. Not only have they established Web sites to ensnare customers, they also use lists of Internet e-mail addresses to send out ads for their services. Up until three years ago, Bear says, he would typically add five new operators to his annual listing. But in the past two years, as the Internet has flourished, he has added an extra 50 to his list.
While the Internet accounts for much of the current boom in shady operations, Bear says, degree mills also have become much wilier in figuring out how to operate just within legal limits. Unlike the "eminent" institutions that extended their effort-free offer to carpenter Smith, most do require some work of their students, which makes the schools seem legitimate. But rarely do they require much work.
In the end, degree mills leave a string of victims. There are trusting students who believe that when they send in drafts of their dissertations, real professors write comments in the margins. Employers must work harder to decide whether to underwrite a current employee's effort to obtain a degree, and they must check carefully to determine whether job applicants are presenting legitimate degrees and documentation.
It's possible to purchase documentation for just about any award that could pad a resume, says Bear, adding that degree mills are very good at making the documentation look legitimate. He recently attended a conference for college registrars, who were advised to check the legitimacy of a transcript by using the tiny postage meter serial number printed on the envelope. They were then instructed to call the university from which the transcript allegedly came from to find out whether it actually was mailed from there.
The cast of degree-mill victims also includes employees who are passed over for promotions in favor of co-workers with crooked credentials. Some experts worry, too, that if phony institutions continue to proliferate, they will eventually damage the credibility of legitimate distance-education programs that provide alternatives for busy adults who can't interrupt their lives to attend college on campus.
P.O. Box U
The deceptions can pose problems in the work world beyond inconvenience or unfairness. Several years ago, Bear testified at the trial of a Florida man who bought a degree for $600 and worked several years as a psychologist in the Florida penal system. He was unmasked by a suspicious colleague who called the state board of licensing and discovered he had no license or training in psychology. In another case, Bear says, a man in Syracuse, NY, with a high school education bought a $100 Ph.D. degree from the Universal Life University, a religious degree mill. He then opened a sex-therapy clinic and, as the head "doctor," counseled unsuspecting patients. He was finally discovered when a dissatisfied client called the state medical board, triggering an investigation.
It might seem that the authorities should simply close down these outfits. But it's not that simple. Degree mills tend to incorporate their businesses in states that have lax laws governing schools, notably Louisiana and Hawaii. Typically, the "university" is little more than a tiny office, a post office box, a toll-free number and a Web site. The state in which a degree mill is located may not require it to be legitimately accredited. It simply needs to be a legally established entity authorized to do business in the state. No one checks on the quality of the education being dispensed.
Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who oversaw the DIPSCAM investigations in the 1908 aimed at degree mills, says no governmental agency these days puts a high priority on stopping the scams. "It's a white-collar crime, and there are bigger fish to fry," he says. "You're not snorting it. You're not cocking it."
Ezell and his DIPSCAM colleagues succeeded in raiding about 50 shady operations and gaining some 30 convictions for mail fraud in the 1980s. Since then, the FBI has taken a more sporadic approach to controlling the profusion of degree mills. Late last year, the agency did participate with the state of Louisiana in shutting down Columbia State University, a notorious degree mill that advertised in prestigious publications such as the Economist that students could earn "legal, accredited" degrees in 27 days. It also had a professional-looking Web site that showed pictures of a lovely campus and stately buildings. The pictures were mere clip art, since Columbia State's real address was a post office box. At the time of the shutdown, Louisiana officials estimated the school was taking in as much as $1 million a month from "students."
That's one of the reasons diploma mills continue to thrive, says Ezell. "Everybody knows they're very lucrative. And they exist because we put a high value on credentials."
That's particularly true today, when lifelong learning has become a national mantra, and we all are told that we can no longer expect to spend our working lives in just one career that requires a narrow set of skills. "You have to keep learning to stay employed. And that results in tremendous demand for credentials," says David Stewart, co-author of the books Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud and External Degrees in the Information Age. He also lays part of the blame for degree mills' popularity on the slowness of traditional schools to respond to the needs of adult learners with jobs and families. The void has been filled by sleazy operators willing to accommodate the desire for credentials.
Dupes or Rogues?
Degree mills may seem to be uniquely post-WWII phenomena, brought about when the GI Bill sparked explosive demand for postsecondary education, but they have been around at least since the early part of the century, says Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, DC. DETC's predecessor organization, the National Home Study Council, was formed in 1926 "partly to identify the good schools and set them apart from the charlatans," Lambert says.
Diploma mills started to fade away in the 1960s with the ascendance of community colleges, which presented a lower-cost chance at higher education for those who were hitherto unable to attend college, Lambert says. But degree mills began to flourish again in the 1980s as credentials grew more important and the time people were willing or able to invest in earning them dwindled. Employers unwittingly abetted scam artists by tying pay or promotions partly to education. The Internet has further aided the scammers by giving them an inexpensive means to reach millions of people.
It would be nice to imagine that most people who deal with degree mills are duped, but experts suspect that the majority know exactly what they're doing when they register. Bear says that some years ago he was a source for a "60 Minutes" investigative piece on degree mills. He was told by one of the producers that the day after the program ran, she received hundreds of calls from people wanting to know how to reach one of the degree mills examined in the program.
Sorting Bona Fides
Employers and serious students are not without tools they want to separate the wheat from the chaff among schools that specialize in distance education. One of the main ways to distinguish them is to carefully examine the school's accreditation. And the key word here is carefully, since accreditation in this country is not a simple thing. In fact, in Bear's words, "it's almost terminally complicated."
Accreditation is a system of examining schools and pronouncing them worthy institutions of higher education, yet there is no single, central governmental agency that controls accreditation in the United States. In fact, anyone can set up an accrediting agency - and lots of degree-mill operators do. That is how they can claim their schools are accredited. But what they're lacking is legitimate accreditation.
The best way to judge a school's accreditation is to find out which agency did the accrediting, then check to see whether the accrediting agency is recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Experts says these are the two universally recognized arbiters of quality in accreditation.
Lambert says there are about 90 legitimate accrediting agencies. Some are regional, some are national, and some do specialized accrediting. Most traditional campus-type universities seek accreditation through the six regional accrediting agencies scattered across the country. Specialized accrediting agencies deal with certain kinds of professions, such as nursing. Lambert's DETC is a national accrediting agency, approved by CHEA, that deals specifically with distance-education entities. In addition to those 90 approved accrediting agencies, he estimates there are about 30 unapproved agencies, many of which dispense accreditation to degree mills.
When accrediting agencies evaluate schools - particularly distance-education schools - one crucial element they examine is how the school deals with the issue of "life experience." This accounts for a huge gray area in trying to distinguish good schools from bad. Prospective students who are seeking advanced degrees after years in the working world believe, rightly, that their experience ought to count for something. Consequently, many distance-education schools evaluate applicants' work history and experience, and award a certain number of credits for what they have done in life.
But how much credit ought to be given for life experience? Some degree mills that sell diplomas outright, requiring now work whatsoever, maintain that life experience can count for 100 percent of the work toward a degree. In contrast, many traditional schools won't give credit at all for experience in the outside world, and they can be stingy about recognizing credits from other traditional institutions.
Few deny that the concept of life-experience credit is a good one; it doesn't matter whether you learned fluent French from five years of classes or from one year of living in France. But, Bear says, there are currently no standards in higher education about what kinds of experience should count, and for how much. "You get 10 experts in a room," he says, "and they could come to blows over this."
DETC, which has accredited 65 distance-education institutions, allows schools to accept life-experience credits equal to no more than 25 percent of the total required for a degree. And those credits have to be documented. For instance, military training courses could count, but only if the student's attendance was documented. In addition, the student would have to submit a portfolio of work relating to the training received. "A student would spend a couple of months on this to do it properly," Lambert says of DETC's life-experience credit requirements.
But after those life-experience credits are established, the student will be asked to do work toward a degree - even by most degree mills. The difference between a degree mill and a legitimate school lies largely in the amount of work that's expected. For instance, a master's in human resources from a degree mill might be obtained simply by skimming several books and writing a 10-page paper on the state of human resources in the workplace. That's barely enough to pass a course in HR at a traditional university, but it could provide just enough of a fig leaf to hide the fact that a diploma mill is handing out sham degrees.
Some experts are hoping that a demonstration project soon to be launched by the U.S. Department of Education will take the first steps toward establishing some national standards for distance-education programs that will give consumers and employers an easier way to evaluate schools. The project, called the Distance Education Demonstration Program, was authorized last year by Congress as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congress recognized that the Internet has given rise to many legitimate online universities and decided it needed to revise old rules about financial aid that were established back in the days when universities were always real, not virtual.
The program's main goal is to devise ways to alter federal student-aid requirements to fit remote students. Until now, for example, schools had to be organized around a 30-week calendar if their students were to qualify for federal financial aid. That's no problem for a traditional school, but it's a big headache for distance-education institutions, which typically allow students to work at their own pace. What's more, the Department of Education would not approve any accrediting agency that sanctioned schools that didn't meet the student-aid criteria.
But Congress recognized that many students now receive distance education from legitimate schools and wanted to give them a chance at student aid, too. The trick was to open up funding to students of solid schools without running the risk that federal dollars would flow into the coffers of diploma mills.
The Department of Education will enroll a maximum of 15 schools in the two-year project to examine different ways to award student aid, says Marianne Phelps, a Department of Education special assistant for postsecondary education. The project won't look directly at the quality of schools' programs, since that falls under the aegis of accrediting agencies. But DETC's Lambert, for one, hopes that once the department establishes student-aid standards for distance-education schools, that will be an easily understood marker of a good school - and a less laborious way to distinguish good schools from diploma mills.
In the meantime, it's strictly caveat emptor in the world of higher education. Employers and consumers who don't want to become experts in the arcane minutiae of accreditation would be wise simply to do business only with a school that is accredited by an agency which is, in turn, approved by the Department of Education or by CHEA. And remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.