Diploma Mills Go Digital


Buying a degree from a diploma mill reminds me of a scene from the 1960 movie The Rat Race, which portrays a naïve out-of-towner (Pete) trying to make it as a musician in the Big Apple. Desperate to spark a romance with the woman he is living with platonically, Pete presents her with a mink stole he’s purchased from a shady character in an alley. He’s taken aback, however, when his jaded love-interest quickly dismisses the gift as a fake.

“But it’s from Saks Fifth Avenue!” Pete protests.

She turns the mink inside out to show Pete the label and wryly states, “The Saks Fifth Avenue is spelled S-A-K-S, not S-A-X.”

One can imagine similar scenarios of people trying to pass off phony qualifications bought from diploma mills to prospective employers, grad schools or even credential evaluators. Like the bogus mink stole in the movie, many diploma mills use names that are remarkably similar to the monikers of well-known universities. Columbia State University and Cambridge State University — both defunct now — are cases in point. These institutions had absolutely no connection to the Ivy League school in New York or the famous university in England.

A few years ago, a reputable southern university sued a for-profit distance learning institution of the same name for trademark infringement and for tarnishing the school’s name. The defending institution, which offered bachelor’s and master’s diplomas after one year of study, “awarded” an honorary degree to a corrupt businessman with close ties to the controversial military regime in Myanmar. Degrees ranged in cost from $2,850 to $7,400.

Columbia State University advertised 27-day degrees and gave credit for “life experience.” The cost of a home-study Ph.D. program through this scam school was $3,500. CSU graduates hail from all walks of life and have included local politicians, police officers and even a jailed member of the terrorist Hamas movement. After fleecing the public out of millions of dollars, Columbia State University and Cambridge State University were finally stopped in their tracks before they could inflict further damage. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that both these institutions were shut down by court orders in 1998.

It is estimated that diploma mills rake in a staggering $200 million a year. Individually, they can generate up to between $10 million and $20 million annually. In Louisiana alone, where the laws governing higher education are riddled with loopholes, these fake universities enroll approximately 10,000 students worldwide. It is not uncommon for a large diploma mill to “award” as many as 500 Ph.D.s a month.

Much of this success can be attributed to the rise of the Internet, which enables diploma mills to effectively advertise programs online and reel in large numbers of degree-hungry consumers. According to John Bear, a former consultant and co-author of Bears’ Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally, there are currently about 300 Web sites operated by bogus institutions, with one to two new sites being created each week.

But diploma mills have been around long before the Internet was created. Between 1983 and 1986, for instance, the FBI launched “Operation Dipscam” shutting down 39 illegitimate schools that were selling counterfeit academic credentials to anyone willing to pay the price. In the last decade though, the growth of the World Wide Web has provided a fertile breeding ground for con-artists of all stripes and colors, resulting in a resurgence of these fly-by-night operations. Now, with just the click of a mouse, one can find a plethora of sites selling bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Ph.D.s and even medical and law degrees in exchange for little or no academic coursework.

Riding the Distance Education Wave of Enthusiasm

The advent of cyberspace, coupled with the escalating demand for academic and professional qualifications, paved the way for a new kind of distance learning in the 1990s: online education. After years of skepticism and censure, it is now acceptable — and in some cases even preferable — to earn a degree at a distance thanks to the revolution in information technology. To be sure, distance learning continues to generate controversy in many circles, both at home and abroad. However, the growth and popularity of this trend during the last five or six years have been phenomenal, to say the least. A recent report predicts that online education will increase from 5 percent of all courses offered in the United States last year to 15 percent by 2002. Working professionals with little or no time to earn a degree at a campus-based institution can now do so in their spare time on the Internet. Hence, distance learning advocates argue that online courses are breaking down traditional barriers to help expand the ranks of the educated around the world.

The dark side of this trend of course is the proliferation of scam operations peddling bogus degrees on the Information Superhighway. Although the FBI sting operation succeeded in knocking the wind out of the diploma-mill industry, the Internet has spawned a whole new generation of fraudulent schools online, which are surprisingly easy to set up and run. The closure of the federal government’s diploma-mill taskforce, the laxity of many states to enforce the proper laws and the failure of the news media to adequately report cases of academic fraud have not helped matters.

How They Operate

It doesn’t take much to launch a digital diploma mill. In a couple of weeks, a skilled Web page designer can bang out a program, plug in graphics and images lifted from other sources to create something that looks very much like an authentic university homepage. “Campuses” are usually set up as post office boxes in one state and run out of private homes located in another. Money is often transferred to operations in other states with lower tax rates to maximize profits. It is also common for some diploma mills to camouflage themselves as religious organizations, which enjoy federal tax-exempt status.

Some of these institutions advertise as being accredited and often feature the names of the accrediting agencies on their Web sites. However, accreditation does not necessarily guarantee legitimacy. There are currently 35 accrediting agencies in the United States, not recognized by the Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, that will put their stamp of approval on just about any program with no questions asked. In many cases, the accrediting agencies in question are merely self-serving organizations set up by the diploma mills themselves.

Hence, to the unsuspecting eye, digital diploma mills can appear remarkably similar to legitimate distance learning institutions. “They take advantage of loopholes in state laws to operate legally,” said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council. “Most of them advertise as ‘universities’ or use words like ‘academe’ to wrap themselves in the king’s cloak.”

Many U.S. states either have weak laws regarding university charters or do not enforce existing laws. Louisiana and at least seven other states (Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Washington) fall into this category. After years of laxity, California finally cracked down on diploma mills in the late 1980s. But many of the busted sham schools simply packed up and set up shop in other states, particularly Louisiana.

Other diploma mills transplant themselves in neighboring countries, like the island nations of the Caribbean, where such laws don’t exist at all. They can then establish a base of operations offshore and beam their Web sites into the United States without fear of legal hassles.

In addition, the worldwide trend toward distance learning is making it easier for the phony schools to blend in with the growing number of legitimate Web-based academic programs. More than a third of U.S. colleges and universities currently offer distance learning via the Internet, and there are several “virtual” universities now that are exclusively online institutions.

“Diploma mill operations are riding on the periphery of the distance education wave of enthusiasm,” said Lambert. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chafe.”

Compounding matters even more is the fact that there are significant gradations in the kind of non-recognized degree programs currently found online. Some are outright scams that sell diplomas without requiring any work whatsoever. Others appear more ambiguous in terms of their legitimacy, offering short-term degrees in exchange for some form of academic work, like a thesis or dissertation. These organizations, according to Lambert and others, are the most dangerous kind of diploma mills because they give the impression of being on the level.

Then there are the institutions that are struggling to gain recognition from a bona fide accrediting agency. Schools that fall into this category have legitimate academic purposes and conduct teaching but have not yet met accreditation standards. These institutions are definitely not diploma mills. In fact there are many unaccredited colleges operating in the United States that are entirely legitimate. So then how do we accurately define a diploma mill?

The commonly accepted definition of a diploma or degree mill is: an entity that sells qualifications without requiring appropriate academic achievement at the post-secondary level. In many jurisdictions in and outside of the United States diploma mills are illegal.

Not too long ago I came across a Web site advertising instant degrees “in exchange for three years of work experience.” This particular institution (which we’ll call We-Scam U) would definitely come under the out-and-out fraud category. To see just how easy or difficult it was to buy a diploma online, I called the 1-800 number provided on their homepage and spoke to a gentleman in the “admissions office.” I told him that I easily fulfilled the three-year work prerequisite and asked whether or not they required coursework of any kind, transfer credits, test results, a thesis or letters of recommendation from my employer.

“No, we make it real easy for you”, he replied sheepishly. “Just send in your check, and we’ll mail the diploma right out to you.” It was as easy as that. For $350 and the cost of a stamp, anyone can acquire a bachelor’s degree from We-Scam U via the Internet. The same institution also offers master’s degrees for $475 and Ph.D.s for $800. And for bargain-conscious shoppers, all three qualifications are available for $1,200.

A degree with honors is a little extra: To have “cum laude” printed on the diploma costs an additional $35, magna cum laude is offered for $65, and for $75, anyone can be asumma cum laude.

Most people would argue that diploma mills deliberately and knowingly defraud the public, which is against the law. But many of these organizations vehemently deny doing anything illegal. Rather, they argue they are merely providing a service for people who want diplomas based on life- or job-related experience. In fact, such activities are not necessarily illegal under state or federal law, especially if the organization’s mission is set forth in writing. We-Scam U, for instance, features a disclaimer at the bottom of its Web page clearly stating that the degrees they offer are strictly intended to bolster confidence and self-esteem. It further asserts that any illegal or improper use of the diplomas is not the responsibility of the “university,” and the offer is void where prohibited by law.

However, experts say this doesn’t make them any less dangerous because holders of phony degrees go out and get jobs they are not qualified to perform. “It’s like people who sell handguns,” Lambert said of the disclaimer. “You have this ‘what you do with it is none of our business’ kind of attitude. Somebody is bound to get hurt sooner or later.”

Who are the Victims?

On one hand, there are the thousands of students who get duped each year, only to find out later that the degrees they acquired from these scam schools are not worth the paper they’re printed on. “Our biggest concern is that they [diploma mills] claim to offer something to benefit students,” commented Joanne Robinson, director of the College Credit Recommendation Service at the American Council on Education. “But what is the value of a degree if it’s not accepted by graduate schools or if an employer runs a background check on an employee’s qualifications and finds out that the person in question holds a phony degree?”

Students overseas are at even greater risk. Many foreigners enrolling in online programs based in the U.S. assume all institutions of higher education are regulated by the government, as is the case in their own countries, and many of them do not understand how accreditation works here.

Others contend that it’s not so much the students who are getting ripped off. According to Bear, at least one-half of the “victims” who purchase academic qualifications from bogus institutions are “co-conspirators.” In today’s competitive world, an advanced degree is often the key to career advancement. A therapist with a Ph.D., for example, will attract more patients than a therapist with only an MA and will be able to charge more, as well. Hence, many people willingly and knowingly acquire diplomas dishonestly either for money, prestige or both.

Phony qualifications that are used for selfish and/or malicious purposes can potentially cause great harm to both employers and the general public, who have ultimately become the real victims of these scams. The news has been full of horror stories in recent years about doctors, lawyers and plastic surgeons practicing their professions with phony qualifications, sometimes resulting in tragic consequences. Nor is it uncommon to hear about major corporations that fill top management slots with seemingly competent personnel, only to find out that those same employees obtained their credentials through diploma mills.

In addition, many experts put much of the blame on the news media for not taking enough interest in the diploma-mill scams and also for running ads. Diploma mills often advertise in respectable international newspapers and journals, including the Economist. Bear recently tried to dissuade the Economist from accepting advertising from diploma mills but claims he didn’t get very far. When he attempted to submit a notice of his own warning readers about the dangers of scam schools, the Economist refused to run it on the grounds that it was unfairly critical of its advertisers, Bear said. Other big publications, including USA Today, Forbes, Psychology Today, Discover, Investors Business Daily, the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek also run diploma-mill ads, according to Bear.

Diploma Mills Abroad

Degree fraud is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Many other countries are grappling with this same problem, as well. In India, for instance, the Board of Ayurvedic and Unani Systems of Medicine has exposed more than 2,500 bogus degrees issued in the name of various institutions of higher education located in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Students pay as much as US$875 to obtain the fake certificates.

In Moscow, anyone can buy a blank diploma for US$800 from a reputable university bearing an official stamp and enter the desired major and date of graduation. For an additional US$50, you can get a blank, official transcript and then fill in the course titles and grades. A diploma with the stamp, signature from the school and an official serial number costs US$10,000.

In the last few years, Indonesia has experienced an unwanted bonanza of diploma mills, especially since the legalization and proliferation of private education. Dr. Irid Agoes, executive director for the International Education Foundation, said that unlike their American counterparts, diploma mills in Indonesia tend to be campus-based instead of online. Some offer master’s degrees in six months and doctorate degrees can be earned in one year. Honorary doctorates are also offered, for a price. Other “schools” offer instant degrees in exchange for little or no work.

Agoes told eWENR that, according to a prominent psychologist recently quoted in an Indonesian daily, many Indonesians buy degrees because the society is essentially feudalistic and titles are still held in high esteem. “So people will do anything, including paying a lot of money, to obtain an advanced degree,” she said. “Sadly, among this group are people of stature, such as government officials, high-ranking officers from the armed forces and other citizens in positions of power.”

There are strict accreditation laws for institutions of higher education in Indonesia, which carry stiff penalties if violated. However, the diploma mills in question have ignored injunctions by the director general of higher education to shut down, claiming that they are accredited by agencies in the United States. Agoes said that, while this may be true, the accrediting bodies that approved the bogus schools are most certainly not recognized in the United States, or anywhere else for that matter.

Solutions to the Problem

Supporters of distance education, and even detractors, advocate enforcing stricter state laws that would protect students and employers alike by forcing diploma mills to get licensed or close down. Because education has traditionally been the responsibility of the states, experts predict that over the next few years local governments will be compelled to learn how to better regulate technology-based courses and programs, in addition to the bricks-and-mortar schools.

But Henry Spille, one of the authors of External Degrees in the Information Age, argues that the states cannot take on this problem alone. “We need to resurrect in a formal way what we used to call in the old days ‘the triad,’ comprised of the federal and state governments and the accrediting bodies,” he said. “There is insufficient communication between these three entities at the moment. They need to acknowledge the problem collectively and not worry so much about whose turf it’s on.”

Judith Eaton, president of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, agreed. She said it is incumbent upon all parties to provide sound information to students, and the general public at large, about the potential dangers posed by the diploma-mill industry. “There is more than enough information out there for the savvy consumer. But we still need to build an information base to help students distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate programs,” she said. “And that is going to take time.”

Following is a list of useful Web sites for detecting diploma mills:

Degree.net: An online resource center for information on distance learning provided by John Bear, Ph.D.

Quackwatch: Your Guide to Health Fraud, Quackery, and Intelligent Decisions

US News & World Report: Top 10 Signs You May be Dealing with a Diploma Mill

Recommended Reading:

Bears’ Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally; by John Bear and Mariah Bear; 1996

External Degrees in the Information Age; by Eugene Sullivan, David W. Stewart, Henry A. Spille; 1997 (to be reviewed in the September/October issue of eWENR)


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