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Diploma mills: How to sniff out a scam

Mar. 1, 2012 - 06:04PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 1, 2012 - 06:04PM  |  
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Chester Ludlow was so happy when he earned a Master of Business Administration from Rochville University online that he barked.

Yes, you read that correctly. You see, Chester Ludlow is a dog — a pug, to be exact — and the mascot of the online education watchdogs at GetEducated.com. In 2009, Chester submitted his résumé and $499, and a week later, he'd been awarded the degree based on his work and life experience.

Chester's dubious honor illustrates the ongoing problem of diploma mills — so-called educational institutions whose degrees often aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Diploma mills are a booming international business, said Vicky Phillips, GetEducated.com founder. And they thrive on targeting populations such as the U.S. military.

"There is no shortage of diploma mills, and they all operate with similar tactics," Phillips said. "One of the first things they do is advertise heavily on credit for career or life experience. If you [perform a Google search] for ‘life experience degree,' most of the first schools that come up are going to be diploma mills. They invest heavily in controlling those keywords of the search."

The accreditation debacle

Such searches are popular among service members looking to pursue a college degree, according to Phillips.

"Many of them have alternative work credit. They are looking to convert their experience to credit. That is a valid practice," she said.

The problem? Many of these schools are not legitimate because they lack valid accreditation — the review process by which schools are judged to ensure that the education they provide meets certain quality thresholds.

Accreditation is performed by recognized private educational associations. They key word here is "recognized" — because, like diploma mills, accreditation mills also abound, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Bottom line: Only CHEA and the Education Department recognize accrediting agencies. If your school is not accredited, or if it claims accreditation by an agency not recognized by CHEA or the Education Department, chances are it's a diploma mill.

Don't take a school's word for it when it comes to checking accreditation.

"Almost every diploma mill is accredited," Phillips said. "The problem is they are accredited by fake agencies. The schools usually own and operate these accrediting ‘agencies' themselves, and the names sound as impressive — if not more impressive — than the real accrediting agencies."

CHEA maintains a database of both recognized accrediting organizations and the institutions and programs accredited by them at www.chea.org. The Education Department also maintains a database at http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation">http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation. Check the names of accrediting agencies carefully, Phillips warns. Many diploma mills claim accreditation by bodies with names very similar to legitimate agencies, or they throw around impressive jargon in an attempt to convince prospective students of their legitimacy.

"They might say, ‘We are recognized by the U.N.,'" Phillips said. "The U.N. doesn't recognize accrediting agencies."

Indeed, when contacted about GetEducated.com's claims that it's a diploma mill, Rochville University responded with an email to this writer from an unnamed "Students' Counselor" that "online Institutions do not require to be accredited by a regional accrediting body because such accreditation is only awarded to campus-based institutions."

Not true.

The email went on: "Degrees offered at Rochville University are completely legal and verified because of having recognition from various official and semiofficial institutes around the world. You can get detailed information on the Accrediting institutions by visiting our website on the following link: http://www.rochvilleuniversity.org/Rochville/Accreditation.htm">http://www.rochvilleuniversity.org/Rochville/Accreditation.htm."

It's another trick of the trade of accreditation mills: directing you to another page on their own website to offer "proof" of their accreditation.

"You have to take the time to make sure the accrediting agency is recognized" by the Education Department or CHEA, Phillips said. Diploma mills will give the name of an "accrediting agency." They give you a number. "But that number comes from the same firm that operates the diploma mill," she said.

Very occasionally, legitimate institutions may not be accredited, Eaton said. One example is a school that is in the process of being accredited. Some religious schools also choose not to be listed, according to CHEA.

"I'm not saying all unaccredited schools are degree mills. I'm not saying that all unaccredited schools are no good," Eaton said. "There are unaccredited schools that are working toward accreditation that are perfectly good. But if a school is not working toward accreditation, I would give pause."

There are limitations associated with going to a school that is not accredited, Eaton said. Having a degree that is not recognized or respected is just the result. Attending such a school also can limit your options to transfer credits later and receive benefits such as scholarships, grants and tuition assistance from your employer. That includes military tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits.

Legal gray areas

Unfortunately, the market remains strong — and laws remain weak — for diploma mills. Eaton says these outfits have two kinds of customers: Those who unwittingly fall victim to the bogus institutions, and informed customers who know they are buying questionable degrees but want a shortcut.

Currently, no federal laws exist to oversee degree mills or to punish those who operate them or knowingly use them. The most recent attempt at legislation, the Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act of 2009, died in the House of Representatives. According to CHEA, the Federal Trade Commission can take action against diploma mills in response to allegations of fraud.

"But it has to get pretty egregious," Eaton said.

Historically, it has been up to the individual states to regulate education as a product, Phillips said. Fourteen states had diploma-mill legislation on the books as of a 2006 CHEA report. But laws vary in intensity and degree of enforcement.

"There is just so much room to abuse the system because of the lack of any national policy and because of weak state laws," Phillips said.

Diploma mills also are expert at staying just this side of any laws, she added. Many skirt laws and regulations by having "headquarters" outside the U.S.

"They mail documents in foreign countries where it is almost impossible to reach or prosecute them from the U.S.," she said.

Others keep changing their names when they are found out, or move to a state with more lax laws if the state in which they are operating cracks down on them.

Cracking down

Penalties for those who knowingly buy bogus degrees can be tougher, Eaton said.

"You can be fined. You can lose your job. Or you can be publicly exposed. You can put yourself in a very awkward position," she said.

Still, Eaton says evidence points to a growing commitment to cracking down on diploma mills.

"Tolerance is diminishing. More states are taking action because their citizens are being harmed. There is more international action" with organizations such as the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) saying they're unacceptable.

For now, though, students still must educate themselves in how to shop for a quality education, Phillips said.

People "are vulnerable because they are not used to shopping for education. They are used to shopping for cars and toasters, but not for education," Phillips said. "We constantly try to get people educated about how to buy a good education and get something good for your money."

Websites such as GetEducated.com, www.chea.org and www.ed.gov are good starting points. Using common sense and a little detective work also helps.

"If an institution is legitimate, you can find out pretty quickly. If an institution is questionable, you have to do a little more work," Eaton said. "It really is ‘let the buyer beware.' But if you are interested in going to school, it's a very important and expensive decision, so take the extra half-hour."

Signs a school may be a diploma mill

If the answers to many of the following questions are "yes," the degree provider under consideration may be a mill according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation:

* Can degrees be purchased?

* Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?

* Is there a claim of accreditation from a questionable accrediting organization?

* Does the operation lack state or federal licensure or authority to operate?

* Is little if any attendance required of students, either online or in class?

* Are few assignments required for students to earn for credits?

* Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?

* Are degrees available based solely on experience or résumé review?

* Are there few requirements for graduation?

* Does the operation fail to provide any information about a campus, business location or address and rely only on a post office box?

* Does the operation fail to provide a list of its faculty and their qualifications?

* Does the operation have a name similar to other well-known colleges and universities?

* Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

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