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Diploma mills provide phony credentials
Web sites push fake degrees

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WASHINGTON - There are funny stories, like the one about the state attorney who bought an MBA for his cat, and then there are the horror stories like tales of New York City cab drivers who moonlight as dentists.

These days you can be anything you want by simply clicking on a mouse and buying a degree from a "diploma mill." Institutions sell phony diplomas, usually by mail, and recently they have been popping up all over the country.

Laura Callahan had a doctorate from Hamilton University and scored a job at the Department of Homeland Security as the associate deputy in the Chief Information Office.

Hamilton University is listed as a diploma mill by Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, the leading authority on degree mills. After being exposed by a co-worker in 2003, Callahan resigned less than a year later.

The federal government now is stepping up its efforts to crack down on the phony colleges.

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The Internet has been the largest facilitator of the mills' rising popularity with e-mails advertising, "No Books. No problem!"

"About two years ago we started to get a lot of pop-up spam that was advertising 'better lives,' " said George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After a few months of receiving these junk e-mails, Gollin got mad and decided to dial the number advertised.

A sales rep from Parkwood University called back and offered him a degree in engineering for $1,000. Gollin, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton University, was told he'd get the diploma in 10 days.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, this is really pretty amusing,' " said Gollin, who compared Parkwood's ads to "a scam like exercise equipment that doesn't make you look as good as the photo."

But he quickly got hooked on the idea of uncovering other fake schools and started searching Google for Web sites that offered the same quickie diplomas as Parkwood.

He found dozens and suddenly the joke became very serious.

"They're not selling things that people put down in their basements," Gollin said. "They are dangerous."

In his search, Gollin discovered a plastic surgeon in South Korea, an oncologist in the United States and several emergency medicine doctors who were treating patients and held degrees from "diploma mill" schools.

He continued to collect information about phony schools and posted it on his Web site until the University of Illinois started getting legal threats from someone calling himself Daniel Taylor, president of American Coastline University in Russia.

Gollin had identified the American Coastline as a diploma mill.

The school's philosophy is "that most adults have already earned the equivalent of a degree/degrees through their life learning," according to its Web site. For as little as $2,500, the school confers associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in more than 30 different subjects.

It turns out that Coastline President Daniel Taylor was some guy from Rochester, N.Y., and the school is nothing more than a Web site.

Gollin has turned his research over to the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization. The Oregon agency has only one Wisconsin diploma mill listed - Heed University in Milwaukee.

According to its Web site, Heed's philosophy is "that mature practicing professionals with extensive experience should be permitted the opportunity to study for advanced degrees without a rigid, formalized structure." The school's mascots are two dogs named Einstein and Frisky and a cat named Emmit.

Fake degrees are illegal only in Oregon, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, North Dakota and Nevada, where they are misdemeanors mainly punishable by fines ranging from $350 to $2,500. However, violators - both the degree holders and the institutions - rarely face prosecution.

But the federal government has responded with new tools for both consumers and business hiring agencies, which suffer the most when duped by phony graduates.

The Department of Education recently launched a searchable online database that includes the names, addresses and enrollment of all schools accredited by organizations recognized by the federal government.

"I believe one of the biggest ways to expose diploma mills is to launch a very large public education campaign," said U.S. Rep. Mark New Castle, D-Dela., chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee.

The department created the database in response to calls for action from Congress in 2004 following an investigation uncovering at least 28 high-ranking government officials who held questionable degrees, including Callahan.

According to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, 463 government employees received degrees from three unaccredited schools: Kennedy-Western University, California Coast University and Pacific Western University.

The reason taxpayers should care is simple: The government spent $170,000 in tuition-reimbursement funds for these bogus degrees.

Even worse, according to the report, that number "likely understates the extent to which the federal government has paid for degrees from diploma mills and other unaccredited schools."

The Office of Personnel Management, the government's recruitment agency, has also announced stricter academic guidelines for those seeking federal employment.

But despite the recent interest in the topic, selling fake degrees is nothing new.

The problem has been tracked since the 1980s, when the FBI's Operation "DipScam" identified about 12,000 people with bogus degrees, ranging from teachers to doctors, according to Allen Ezell, a former special agent.

Ezell is co-author of "Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold Over A Million Fake Diplomas."

He began uncovering diploma mills with an investigation of South Eastern University in Greenville, S.C., which sold more than 618 fake degrees.

After Ezell and several other agents negotiated the price of their diplomas over the phone, the school's president showed up to deliver a $5,000 master's degree in divinity and was arrested.

Hearings on the subject were held in both 1985 and 1986, but nothing was done to fix the problem, Ezell said, until the popularity of the Internet and 21st century job competitiveness once again brought fake degrees to the forefront.

"It's much more sophisticated now," Ezell said. "It's an easy way to make money because no one in federal government is doing anything about it."

According to Ezell's estimate, the diploma mill business brings in more than $500 million annually, and the federal government has paid more than $7.5 million in tuition reimbursements, making the United States "the largest supplier of diploma mills in our country."

But uniform regulation to stop the mills may not be the answer, since the line between what is or isn't a diploma mill remains blurred.

Unaccredited schools range from legitimate distance-learning programs that include course work, tests and teacher feedback to fake schools that grant degrees based on life experience, shoddy courses and dollar signs.

"There are some schools who for a variety of reasons have chosen not to be accredited," said Steven Crow, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission, a private organization that accredits more than 1,000 institutions, including those in Wisconsin.

"These schools do require work of their students, but there is no way to determine if that work is of the quality appropriate to the degree that they award."

Federal law states that the Department of Education cannot be involved in determining educational quality because that is perceived to be a state's right.

Instead the government recognizes about 18 regional and national private organizations like Crow's that determine whether or not a school is legitimate and can therefore receive federal funding through financial aid like Pell Grants.

According to Crow, the real problem with accreditation happens when diploma mills go so far as to set up their own accrediting agencies that then accredit themselves.

This gray area is exactly what the government is trying to eliminate.

"The sort of stuff the Department of Education is doing to move it to an employer-employee issue is the best way of approaching this," said Gollin, who still checks the Internet for fake schools from time to time.

According to Gollin, informing companies of the high risk involved in hiring a fake graduate is key to reducing the number of fake degrees.

Ezell added that universities and college students should be vigilant, too, checking to make sure that their school's trademark isn't floating around the Internet for sale.

"It's your paper that they're devaluing," Ezell said.

Published: 10:05 AM 2/14/05


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