Congress taking aim at diploma mills
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When Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle came under scrutiny last year for authorizing $27,000 for a controversial study written by her mother's boyfriend, she defended the study and its author saying, "He's a Ph.D. He's qualified."
Lee Otto Johnson, who submitted the 85-page report on city health issues that consisted of reports written by other agencies and an essay on race and religion, does list a doctorate on his resume from Columbia State University. But it's a school that never existed except as a company that sold phony degrees to people willing to buy them.
Columbia State University, which had no campus, no faculty and no class work, has been shut down by federal authorities who declared the wildly profitable Internet company a "diploma mill." Its owner pleaded guilty in 2004 to fraud charges.
"The only thing the buyer is doing is sending in a check or money order. They know what they are buying," said Allen Ezell, former head of the FBI diploma-mill-busting task force. "The diploma mill knows what they are selling. The third party is in the dark."
With the advent of the Internet and escalating demand for academic credentials in a competitive job market, the popularity of diploma mills has soared and many states, including Pennsylvania, have been slow to pass legislation to outlaw them.
Hundreds of nonexistent schools are selling degrees on the Internet and dozens more sell exact replicas of degrees granted by real colleges and universities.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., has introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would "reduce and prevent the sale and use of fraudulent degrees in order to protect the integrity of valid higher education degrees that are used for federal purposes."
The bill, which is still in committee, was written in response to an investigation that found thousands of bogus degrees were sold to federal employees on congressional staffs and with NASA, U.S. Customs and the Pentagon.
If it becomes law, the likelihood of imprisonment could increase for federal employees who resort to desperate means to impress their colleagues or gain an unfair advantage in the workplace.
So far, only a small number of states have passed laws addressing the problem.
Oregon was the first, about eight years ago, to make it a crime to use fake or unrecognized degrees, and since then a handful of other states have followed, including Illinois, New Jersey, North Dakota and Texas.
Pennsylvania cases are pursued through the consumer protection laws, not laws specific to diploma mills.
Anyone can buy unearned credentials for any and every profession, as well as fake transcripts and recommendations.
"I bought a Harvard medical degree for $40 and it was a perfect replica," said John Bear, an author who tracks diploma mills and served as an expert witness for the FBI on the subject.
The companies selling these degrees have thrived because many employers don't bother to check employees' educational credentials, and many of the diploma mills use legitimate sounding names like Columbia State or University of Berkley, which could be confused with the actual University of California, Berkeley.
Using broad consumer protection laws, the Pennsylvania attorney general early this year cracked down on the University of Berkley, a notorious diploma mill operating out of an industrial park in Erie. Its owner, Dennis Globosky, was fined $75,000 and ordered to shut down the diploma mill Web site.
"In these types of cases where consumers are being misled and the product being offered isn't what consumers are being led to believe, the consumer protection laws are the primary tool we would have," said Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the state attorney general.
In another case that made headlines, the Pennsylvania attorney general sued the owners of a diploma mill called Trinity Southern University in 2004 after state employees paid $398 to obtain a master's of business administration for a cat named Colby Nolan.
Later that year, the Texas attorney general obtained a temporary restraining order under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act against Trinity Southern and its owners, Craig and Alton Poe. The court ordered the school's assets frozen, and in March 2005 the Poes were assessed fines and ordered not to market or promote fraudulent, substandard degree programs or to represent their university as being accredited or affiliated with legitimate universities.
Phony credentials are a serious and potentially dangerous matter, especially when used to gain credibility in the health care field.
Former Pittsburgh Public Schools psychologist Donald Stettner also claimed he received a doctorate from Columbia State University. His counterfeit credentials were not discovered until after he was accused of molesting children in 2003. He was suspended without pay, and his employment status with the district is still pending.
More recently, a Pennsylvania Gaming Board agent was arrested in May last year after officials learned his college degree came from an online diploma mill.
Michael Ray Rosenberry was charged with two counts of false swearing and three counts of unsworn falsification. He told investigators during his background check that he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice administration from Stanton University. The truth was he never attended a class, bought a book, met any instructors or prepared one paper for his degree. A judge in March acquitted him of the four misdemeanor charges, including one count of false swearing and three counts of unsworn falsification.
"We've seen diplomas from diploma mills used in positions ranging from education, the business world, law enforcement, the medical field. It runs the gamut. You name the profession," Mr. Ezell said.
People who use a diploma mill or falsify their academic credentials in other ways may gain a temporary advantage in the job market, but it often amounts to putting a time bomb on their resumes.
Often it detonates right after something good happens to them.
Marti Buscaglia, former publisher of the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune was about to become publisher of the bigger Orange County (Calif.) Register last month when it was discovered that she misrepresented her educational qualifications on her resume. She claimed she graduated from Lima University in Peru when she had not.
The Michigan attorney general's office in July shut down a diploma mill Web site that sold imitation high school and university credentials.
"Diploma mills cheapen the hard work and effort that students put into successfully completing their education," Michigan Attorney General Steve Carter said in a written statement on July 5.
While the diploma mill industry has boomed in recent years, there are many legitimate learning opportunities in the online education community. The number of accredited online programs have grown, and many have been granted the same federal student aid status as brick-and-mortar schools.
The University of Phoenix, Strayer College and Kaplan University are a few of the online colleges and universities that are accredited by recognized accrediting organizations.
The Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., is a federally recognized accrediting agency for online colleges and universities. Michael Lambert, executive director of the council, said diploma mills will even fabricate their own accrediting agencies to create a smoke screen. Two diploma mills tried to steal his council's name in the past.
"Diploma mills have the slickest, most inviting and most convincing Web sites in cyberspace today," Mr. Lambert said. "They are marvels of design and viewer interactivity. They use all the high-sounding phrases one associates with a university education, but they are hollow idols 'tarted up' to look like real colleges."
Mr. Lambert suggests that employers and consumers verify that distance learning schools are accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency because no diploma mill has ever been accredited by any of them.
The easiest way to check for accreditation is the Web site of the Council For Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org. DETC's Web site, www.detc.org, also has a comprehensive list of accredited online degree institutions.
"The Internet has spawned a new, and very sophisticated, generation of diploma factories," Mr. Lambert said. "They are very clever. We'll never be able to legislate them out of existence, but we can educate the public about their existence."
First Published August 12, 2007 11:05 pm