Quasi-qualified: Diploma mills degrees based on questionable criteria
Illustration by VICTOR ADY/Gazette staff

Knight Ridder News

In their quest for college degrees, some students spend semester after semester in lecture halls, write exhaustive term papers and cram for arduous exams.

Others just send money to an Internet site and receive a fake transcript in the mail.

Scores of diploma mills offer degrees based on "life experience" or other questionable criteria, giving pretenders ready access to valuable but vacant credentials. And at least once in a while, such make-believe educations are duping gullible employers.

"The reason why people buy fake degrees is because they work," said Richard Douglas, a Virginia doctoral candidate who is studying employers' knowledge of diploma mills.

The growth of the Internet has been a boon for degree sellers - allowing them to advertise anonymously and create the illusion that they are as legitimate as real schools, said John Bear, an author of several education guidebooks who has tracked diploma mills for more than two decades. He estimates that there are 200 such businesses operating currently, with sales of more than $200 million a year.

A recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office illustrates the reach of fake degrees.

GAO investigators posed as Susan M. Collins, an imaginary medical technology worker, to purchase diplomas from Degrees-R-Us, a company that advertises online and that they had identified as a diploma mill.

They bought a bachelor of science degree in biology, dated June 13, 1975, and a master's degree dated June 10, 1988, in Collins' name - both from Lexington University, a nonexistent school purportedly in Middletown, N.Y.

Among the fictitious academic accomplishments for Collins: She received an A in Introduction to Sociology; Bs in both Spanish I and Spanish II; and an overall grade-point average of 3.80.

The GAO paid $1,515 for a package that included Collins' two diplomas, honors distinctions and a telephone verification service. That service made it possible for potential employers to check information about her transcript and confirm that she'd been awarded the degrees.

Degrees-R-Us' owner, a disbarred Las Vegas lawyer, subsequently told the GAO that he sells diplomas only for "self-esteem purposes" and not to fill employment requirements. The agency referred the company to the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Postal Service for more investigation.

The GAO also tried to learn how prevalent fake diplomas are on workers' resumes.

Investigators scanned a government-sponsored resume database and discovered more than 1,200 applicants who listed degrees from diploma mills. About 200 of them held "positions of trust and responsibility."

Bear said it's difficult to determine whether buyers of "life experience" degrees are full-fledged liars out to deceive their bosses or merely victims who believe a diploma mill's hype.

The degree mills often tout conservative-sounding names, claim to have accreditation and require buyers to list their job experiences that will add up to a diploma. That could be enough to fool some students who are interested in online courses or other legitimate alternatives to traditional colleges, Bear said.

They also can dupe employers who fail to inspect job candidates' credentials, Douglas said.

Douglas, an AT&T corporate trainer, surveyed about 270 human resources professionals about which institutions' degrees they deemed acceptable.

Of the 12 "schools" that he presented them, some were valid colleges and some were diploma mills that weren't accredited by any legitimate agency.

The result: Employers were more likely to approve institutions that sounded real than those that were real, Douglas said.

"If you have a degree from a funny-sounding school that people do not recognize, I guess you get put in the do-not-consider pile," Douglas said.

"With diploma mills, they tend to be very staid, very traditional-sounding. The whole point is to give some semblance of dignity."

That poses little trouble to graduates of Ivy League universities or other well-known colleges. But it may concern students from legitimate colleges that aren't named after dead U.S. presidents or British cities, said Douglas, whose own doctorate will come from Cincinnati-based Union Institute and University.

At The Container Store, the Dallas-based retailer, college degrees aren't a prerequisite for most employees. That may leave workers with less incentive to overstate their credentials, but the policy also means that managers don't bother to verify the accuracy of applicants' claims when they do boast degrees.

"When we are hiring salespeople, we really look for employees that have life experiences that help them make decisions," said Kelly Vrtis, a spokeswoman for The Container Store. "So it's really not necessary to have a college degree to work in our store."

Still, the company would take action against employees who are caught exaggerating their educations - regardless of the requirements for their specific jobs, she said.

"It is a fireable offense, any kind of forgery on your resume or your application," she said.

Rollie Richmond, director of client services at Baylor Health Care System, said dishonest job applicants pose a constant challenge to employers.

His company attempts to ferret them out by paying a private contractor to conduct thorough background checks on potential new hires, Richmond said.

"They're going to go right to the university," he said. "They're going to use their database to determine where they need to call."

When deceptive workers sneak past the safeguards, he said, the hospital chain tries to act aggressively if they're caught.

"It says right on our application that that's grounds for termination of employment," Richmond said. "No system's fail-safe, and you have to be prepared to deal with it pretty severely."

Copyright © 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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