Top fields for bogus degrees Degree-for-a-fee travesty

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Law enforcement

Corrections

Counseling

Medical administration

Teaching

K-12 administration

Source: Alan Contreras of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization

Considering distance education?

Many legitimate schools offer online courses and distance education. It is, indeed, possible to get a degree without ever entering a classroom. However, it pays to do your homework and check up on a school before signing up for class. Also, make sure your employer, any other schools you plan to attend, and your state recognizes degrees from the institution you are considering.

Some legitimate schools (often religious institutions) operate without accreditation, but the majority should be recognized by a major accrediting body.

Check out these Web sites for information on accredited schools and how to spot degree and diploma mills:

state.me.us/education/index.shtml

• Maine Department of Education. Follow links on “Higher Education” and then “Diploma and Accreditation mills”

chea.org

• Council for Higher Education Accreditation. A respected overseer of national accreditation with some good information on degree and diploma mills, as well as accreditation mills

osac.state.or.us/oda

• Office of Degree Authorization at the Oregon Student Assistance Commission

More great info here, including a link to an interesting presentation by George Gollin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: http://www.hep.uiuc.edu/home/g-gollin/diploma_mills.pdf

Notorious cases

• In 2003, a deputy chief information officer for the Department of Homeland Security, Laura Callahan, was busted for padding her resume with advanced degrees from a known diploma mill.

• An ensuing investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that at least 28 high-ranking government officials, including top employees of the National Nuclear Security Administration, held fake degrees, and 463 government employees had degrees from unaccredited schools.

• In 2004, 11 Georgia educators were caught holding advanced degrees from a Liberia-based diploma mill, Saint Regis University. The state had checked the records of 130,000 teachers that spring.

• Law enforcement officers, counselors and even medical doctors have been caught with degrees from what U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has referred to as virtual “vending machines.”

“I think they really are a problem,” she said recently, talking about her own experience buying a fake degree and transcripts as part of a government investigation in 2001, when she served as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

“We crack down on them periodically,” she said, but, “We find that they pop back up again, and that’s the problem with the Internet.”

What’s being done

Oregon is at the forefront of efforts to address the problem of fake degrees and undeserved credentials. The state has an Office of Degree Authorization, headed by Alan Contreras.

Contreras said it’s easier to go after people using fake degrees than schools from which they are issued. Differing state regulations, a lack of federal oversight and the fact that many mills operate overseas does not help.

Contreras said Oregon has a law that essentially says, “If you do not have an accredited degree ,you can’t use that degree for credentials except for under limited circumstances.”

Contreras spends a good deal of time studying degrees from across the country, and he maintains a list of schools that Oregon recognizes as legitimate institutions.

In 2005, Maine took similar action, enacting a law prohibiting the use of “false academic degrees” to obtain employment, raises or promotions, or admission to colleges or universities.

The law also requires information on unaccredited or illegitimate schools be made available to the public, which is something Harry Osgood, a higher education specialist with the Maine Department of Education, tries to stay on top of.

In April, Osgood posted a list of 732 unaccredited schools on the Department of Education Web site. “We fully anticipate we’ll have a couple hundred more to add by the year’s end,” he said.

Among other states taking action, Wyoming recently enacted legislation intended to address the diploma and degree mill problem, and Idaho is expected to do the same.

Degree-for-a-fee travesty
The Sun Journal pursues a fake degree online: We found that you, too, can get one

“No Studies, No Attendance, No Waiting, No Examinations.” So begins the online pitch of one degree mill – a “school” that issues fake college diplomas for a fee.

“On the basis of what you already know, you can now qualify for an accredited degree that is accepted and recognized worldwide for as little as $199.”

The temptation is great: a piece of paper worth a raise or promotion – or even a new job – sans the hefty student loan payments and long, late-night study hours huddled over a desk, hopped up on caffeine.

Paying from $60 to several thousand dollars, one can get degrees ranging from GEDs to Ph.D.s. Practically overnight, it’s possible to become a computer programmer, educator, medical technician or even an aeronautical engineer – on paper. And for a price, a degree can be backdated and transcripts can be had with a 4.0 GPA.

Feel like doing a little work? Try a diploma mill, different from a degree mill only because “students” are required to write a paper or two. And hand over a lot more dough.

Either way, fake or not-so-worthy degrees are cheaper than the real thing, and growing more popular all the time.

Some experts estimate fake degrees and “schools” issuing diplomas for less-than-usual amounts of work are raking in hundreds of millions or possibly billions of dollars each year, often using the Internet to lure both witting and unwitting customers.

With our own inboxes flooded by offers at the Sun Journal, our curiosity got the better of us.

Over several weeks, we called the “admissions” numbers in the e-mails, took tests to “apply” for degrees online and dickered with “university officials” about the merits of one dubious degree versus another.

The results?

Questionable.

But, oh, what a ride.

Going Online

I was given a $200 budget for this trip into the world of degree and diploma mills.

My journey began with the words “fake degree” and a Google search.

Immediately, I was inundated with articles warning about the dangers of fake degrees, along with advertisements from places that encouraged me to “Avoid Fake Degree” and try their universities.

Realizing I’d need a little guidance, I called Alan Contreras of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization. His state is at the forefront of efforts to address fake degree problems and has served as a model for the handful of others that have followed suit, including Maine.

Contreras spends a good deal of time examining degrees from throughout the country, trying to separate legitimate credentials from those issued by degree or diploma mills. He also watches for schools boasting credentials from agencies that turn out to be equally false – accreditation mills.

Oregon law goes after the person using a fake or illegitimate degree rather than the “school” that may have issued the document. Varying state laws and a lack of federal regulation make it difficult to do much more.

Inside the U.S., Contreras said, some states have become notorious for playing host to dodgy schools. “I have what I call the seven sorority sisters: Mississippi, Wyoming, Idaho, Hawaii, Alaska, Missouri and Montana.”

He picked Mississippi as one of the worst offenders when it comes to failing to regulate institutions of higher education. “Mississippi state law allows a garbage hauler to issue degrees,” he said. “Basically, anybody with a pulse can issue a Ph.D.”

Contreras sent me to three schools with Mississippi ties listed on the Oregon Web site of unaccredited colleges: Novus, Lacrosse and Columbus. (According to the Oregon Web site, Columbus and Lacrosse were closed by state action in Louisiana, but still are allowed to operate in Mississippi.)

Worth the price of admission?

Checking each “school’s” site, I learned it would cost me about $2,500 for a master’s degree. All three alluded to classes I would take and textbooks I would be required to buy.

Novus and Lacrosse made mention of “life experience” credit somewhere on their Web sites. I settled on Novus and worked up a resume with a wealth of teaching experience in hopes of getting a discount on a master’s degree in education.

Practicing my trumped-up work history in my head, I dialed and was relieved to be connected with an automated answering service. (A 24-hour appointment center, it happened.)

The recorded voice asked me to leave my contact information with an operator, then I was connected with a pleasant man who told me I’d hear back from a “mentor.”

Several hours later, a “J.” or “Jay” Thomas called.

“It’s a fairly straightforward program, Kelly,” he said, adding that it would take anywhere from 18 months to three years to complete.

He explained that I would first be put in touch with a “curriculum adviser” who would help me create a portfolio and put together a “professional development course.” The advisers usually have a master’s in education, if not a doctorate, he said.

“After the completion of that, you’re going to segue into the thesis,” Thomas said, not mentioning any actual course work. The thesis could be a project or a paper.

Somewhere along the way, I’d be expected to complete some “fieldwork,” such as classroom teaching.

Our conversation was odd, but nothing sounded overtly suspicious until I asked about using my Novus credentials to teach.

The school is accredited by the “World Association of Universities and Colleges,” which the Web site acknowledged “is a private accrediting association not listed with an(y) government agency or the US Department of Education.”

“Usually, you don’t have any problems in private education,” Thomas told me, but, “there have been some problems” with Novus graduates trying to use their degrees to teach at public schools.

Handed the answers

Thomas Nixon, co-author of the well-respected “Bear’s Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning,” said some people getting fake diplomas believe they are getting the real thing.

“If you were never a college student, you might not know how much work that would entail,” he said.

How many people – wittingly or unwittingly – buy into degree scams? “That’s difficult to study,” Nixon said. Some estimate that hundreds of diploma and degree mills are operating today.

As tempted as I was to test out the rigor of the Novus program, I knew I didn’t have the money or the time.

So, I turned to what I expected to be a faster and cheaper option: calling the numbers at the bottom of three e-mail solicitations I’d received, each of which maintained I deserved a degree based on my life experience.

Each call led to a voicemail, one of which answered with nothing more than a message-prompting “beep.”

The other two had similar-sounding messages asking me to leave my contact information and what type of degree I was interested in.

While waiting for callbacks (which took days), I went back online and opened a link to Belford University – one of the schools with a paid spot at the top of my first “fake degree” search.

At Belford, it turns out, students choose a level of degree, take a bogus test and then send in a payment. I decided to pursue a master’s in no particular area for $599, and submitted to the “qualification” test online.

I was faced with 42 questions with no apparent aim. Many lacked directions, and the subjects jumped from English to math to questions about DNA sequencing and solar eclipses.

A series of math problems helped me relive some terrible nightmares from my high school algebra days (John can paint a house in 12 hours. Doug can paint a house in 15. If they work together…).

In the end, I scored a 67 – just three points shy of the 70 I needed to “earn” my degree.

No matter. Here’s the beauty of Belford University – while giving me my failing grade, the Web site also encouraged me to try again and offered some help: “Before you retake the test, click here view the correct answers along with your attempted right/wrong answers.” (Grammatical error courtesy of the university.)

Ten minutes later, answer sheet in hand, I took the same test again and passed with flying colors.

Wallet-sized diploma

Still, $599 for Belford wasn’t in my budget, so I tried a similar site, that of Almeda University.

There, all I had to do was fill out a form and submit a copy of my resume (my real one this time) to see if I qualified for a diploma. Days later, I received an official-looking letter in the mail.

“You have clearly demonstrated proficiency and competence in your area of expertise,” the letter stated. “In recognition of your achievements we have determined that your traditional and experiential education undoubtedly qualifies you for the degree of Master of Arts with a major in communications.”

For $595 (plus shipping), I’d get my diploma along with a transcript, a laminated, wallet-sized miniature of my diploma, my diploma professionally replicated and laser-engraved on a plaque, and a “beautiful” 8-inch black marble and brass desk nameplate.

Sooo tempting, but still out of my budget.

I did notice this little caveat on Almeda’s Web site before leaving, though (again, not my typo):

“Accreditation or acceptance by any the above organizations ensures that degrees issued by Almeda carry the weight they need to be accepted by small, medium and large companies across the United States and around the world. However, accreditation by these organizations does not guarantee your degree will be accepted by everyone.”

In other words, don’t expect potential employers to like your degree or other schools to give you transfer credits.

Made-to-order

Still looking for something under $200, I turned to a diploma “replacement” service.

Most sites in this area of the degree mill trade make it known their “replacements” are “novelty” items. They still may charge several hundred dollars for them, however.

I found diplomareplacementservices.com, which offered a master’s degree (in any profession, from any school) for $170.

While my original intent had been to get a degree in some outlandish scientific field, the temptation of seeing whether a fake degree would look like my actual master’s in journalism was too much. I wrote to see whether I really could get a “replacement” for a degree from Columbia University in New York. (Note the proper spelling of Columbia U.)

“We have many templates,” came the unsigned response, which encouraged me to send a money order to a Blair Guidry in Hayden, Idaho. (Remember the seven sisters?)

I also was asked to sign and fax over a form that said I wouldn’t show anyone my new “novelty degree.”

I faxed the form, sent the money and two weeks later my degree from “Colombia University” came neatly rolled in a cardboard poster tube. The misspelled name was not a surprise – it’s typical for “novelty” or degree “replacement” services to steer clear of legal action by using school names that sound like, but do not exactly duplicate, the names of legitimate institutions.

The degree looked nothing like my real diploma. Printed on cream-colored paper and bearing four official-looking signatures and a large gold “seal,” it looked better.

There was a tiny, barely noticeable stamp on the lower right corner that read: “Novelty item only.”

That, a co-worker quickly pointed out, would easily be covered by an expensive frame used to showcase such a document.

Not quite over

As it happened, I later heard back from two of the e-mail solicitors; the ones whose messages had promised I qualified for a life experience degree without doing any work.

“Get paid what you’re worth,” one had declared, assuring me my new “diploma” would garner me a raise. “Confidentiality Assured,” said the other.

I chatted for a while with “Paul” from “Southerland University.” He expressed shock at the low cost of my diploma.

“I can’t imagine anything so great for $160,” he said dismissively, having no idea what my new credentials looked like. “Our documents look more professional than that.”

Then he quizzed me about my choice in schools.

“Idaho,” he said, after learning that’s where my “school” was. “It’s a place where you wouldn’t expect a university, so when people see that, they might question your documents,” he added.

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