The scourge of fake diplomas

It was early 2003, and the newly created Department of Homeland Security was looking for someone to help oversee its vast computer network. The department soon found a candidate who appeared to be a perfect match: Laura Callahan. Not only had Callahan been working with federal IT systems since the mid-'80s, but she came with outstanding academic credentials: bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, topped by a Ph.D. in computer information systems. In April 2003, Callahan was brought on as the department's senior director in the office of the chief information officer, pulling down a six- figure salary.

But Callahan didn't last long. A few weeks after her hiring, the Office of Personnel Management opened an investigation into her resume following the publication of articles questioning her degrees' provenance. It turned out that Callahan's vaunted academic achievements were anything but—all three degrees had come from Hamilton University, a now-defunct degree mill operating out of a former Motel 6 in Evanston, Wyoming, that claimed religious affiliation. In June 2003, she was placed on administrative leave. By the time she resigned, in March 2004, a new picture of Callahan had emerged: not a skilled IT executive, but an unqualified hack.

Degree mills differ, but all sell academic credentials for little or no work. So how was Callahan able to advance with three bogus degrees on her CV? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Callahan insists she was scammed as well. One of the more elaborate degree frauds, Hamilton University (not to be confused with the well-regarded Hamilton College in upstate New York) "required" online coursework for her bachelor's and master's and a dissertation for her doctorate; while her work was never evaluated, from Callahan's perspective, the requirements made Hamilton seem legit. She had even checked to make sure Hamilton was an accredited university. And it was—by the American Council of Private Colleges and Universities (ACPCU), whose mission was "to establish and enforce strict academic, ethical, financial and evaluative standards." This was enough for her, and probably enough for anyone else who thought to casually check out the obscure institution. Alas, had Callahan gone a step further, she would have found that the acpcu was, itself, a scam. Even its religious affiliation was but a means to skirt state laws. The ACPCU, she later wrote, "appeared to be run by the same people who operated the religious organization sponsoring the university. In other words, the accrediting body was an `accreditation mill.'"

There are basically two types of students in the degree-mill world: those who are in on the scam, and those, like Callahan, who get scammed. But, for employers and the public, the difference doesn't really matter. Thanks to the growing importance of credentials for professional advancement and the ease of Internet access, the nation's 2,000-plus mills have become a $500 million per year business, according to degree-mill expert John Bear—and that means a growing number of people performing jobs for which they are untrained and unqualified. That's one thing if the employees are just, say, managing a local business. It's quite another when they're responsible for national security.

In 2003, a deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon was outed for having a fake degree; he, too, insisted that he never suspected anything was wrong, because the school claimed to be accredited. A 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found 463 federal employees alone with degrees from three mills, including 28 senior-level employees at, among other places, Homeland Security and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The investigation found "a couple hundred people in the Department of Defense," says Alan Contreras, who oversees degree authorization for the state of Oregon. "They found so many that they simply decided it was not politically possible to do anything about it." Protecting the public from hacks will require not just a crackdown on the wayward students who acquire fraudulent degrees, but also a renewed push against the mills that supply them-- which means going after fake accreditors as well.

PEOPLE FAMILIAR WITH ivy-covered walls and cavernous lecture halls are often surprised to learn how massively the Internet has changed higher education. Thanks to high-speed connections, video cams, and free e-mail, there are few things you can get at a brick-and-mortar school that you can't find online. In many ways, this is a decidedly good thing, allowing thousands to afford and attend academic programs they might otherwise find inaccessible. And, on one level, it has also made it simpler to check up on a program's quality. Indeed, Bear, who co-wrote Degree Mills with retired FBI degree-mill expert Allen Ezell, says that awareness of potential academic frauds is way up, thanks to consumer activism and the ease of researching an institution online. After all, it takes just a few clicks to see whether Adam Smith University, for example, is merely obscure or truly fraudulent. "With the arrival of the Internet, it's been possible for people to check out what is a real school and what isn't more rapidly," says University of Illinois Physics Professor George Gollin, who has spent several years compiling data on degree mills.

But mill operators have gone high-tech, too. Once the province of lone operators with printers on their kitchen tables and ads on matchbook covers, today's degree mills are slick websites, often complete with bios of nonexistent faculty, chat rooms, even .edu suffixes for their URLs. "The people running these things are getting more clever," says Bear. "It's big-time stuff, answering the needs of the market." And, of course, they've created their own accreditation bodies--though most are little more than Web pages citing rigorous, though undefined, accrediting "standards." Officially, accreditation bodies are approved by either the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a nonprofit whose mission is to watch the watchers, so to speak. But, unfortunately, neither Education nor chea has a monopoly on the use of the term "accreditation." Unlike terms like "free" and "low tar," there are no federal regulations on how "accreditation" is used. (The Federal Trade Commission has written guidelines for the term, but they do not have the force of law.) As a result, in recent years, some 200 fake accreditors have popped up.

Most accreditation scams resemble the ACPCU: fronts that exist solely to give cover to a particular degree mill. Take Breyer State University. It is licensed in Alabama; it has an affiliation with a shady medical-degree mill on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat; and it is operated by Dominick Flarey, who lives near Youngstown, Ohio. All of this should raise some red flags, but Breyer State has nevertheless "graduated" hundreds of proud students, many of whom were likely mollified by the school's seemingly sterling accreditation from the Central States Consortium of Colleges and Schools (CSCCS), an affiliate of the American Institute of Healthcare Professionals (AIHP). Such innocuous, official-sounding titles likely prevent most students and employers from looking further; when they do, they learn that both the csccs and the aihp are themselves fronts--and, like Breyer State itself, are run by Flarey. "It lets him fool people into thinking that his school has been properly evaluated, " says Gollin. Flarey's accreditation subsidiary is convenient, because it is unlikely that any legitimate accreditor would approve of Breyer State awarding degrees for "life experience" or allowing students to "self-design" their own Ph.D. programs. (Flarey rejected the charge that Breyer State is a degree mill. "People can call us a diploma mill; that doesn't make it so," he says. "Some will say any school that isn't accredited is a degree mill. But accreditation is a voluntary process.")

Then there are people like Maxine Asher. An elderly resident of the posh Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Asher has run her own degree mill, American World University, since 1990. (Once incorporated in Iowa, it now operates out of Pascagoula, Mississippi.) But, in 1993, after repeatedly running up against potential students demanding credentials, she hit on the idea of creating her own accreditor, the World Association of Universities and Colleges. (In an interview, Asher denied that American World was a degree mill and said she was the victim of hostile state regulators.) But, rather than simply accrediting American World, Asher realized she had another revenue stream on her hands. And so, for $1,500 (on top of a $1,000 membership fee), she offers to "accredit" other schools based on self-evaluations; "accredited" schools then pay a $3,500 annual membership fee. Today, the World Association claims to have 69 members, 40 of which are "accredited." "People realized that's a whole profit center in itself," says Bear.

BECAUSE OF THE DEMAND for employees with academic credentials is only going to increase, the government needs to take steps to ensure the verification of those credentials. But, despite the alarm raised by Callahan's degrees and the GAO report, little has been done to crack down on degree and accreditation mills. In 2004, Senator Susan Collins held hearings on whether federal money was being spent on degree-mill courses, but her hearings attracted little attention; at times, she was the only senator present. And, while the Department of Education has created a database of accredited schools and accreditors, the system has at times been rife with errors. Meanwhile, in 1991, the FBI shut down its successful anti-degree mill operation (known as DipScam) when its director, Ezell, retired. Overall, the feds' efforts have been "limited, poor, and inefficient," says Contreras. "It's a low priority for everybody."

But, as Callahan's case makes clear, it should be a priority. It's hardly in the national interest to have unqualified people overseeing security-related computer systems and Pentagon personnel. And, yet, some of the biggest concentrations of fake degrees are in crucial departments like Homeland Security, Defense, and Energy. While the GAO study identified more than 450 fake-degree holders in the federal government, it noted the numbers could be much higher. "We believe that the agencies are not able to accurately determine the number of their employees who have diploma mill degrees," wrote the authors.

The problem extends well beyond the Beltway. In recent years, countless doctors, teachers, and even college and university executives have been exposed for having fraudulent degrees. There's the Florida fire department training commander caught last year with a degree in fire science from Suffield University, a mill "accredited" by the bogus National Distance Learning Accreditation Council. Ten teachers and a principal in Georgia were caught with fake degrees from the now-defunct St. Regis University. And, in 2002, a North Carolina doctor with a fake medical degree was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and practicing without a license for taking a child off insulin, killing her. "If you don't want bridges designed by people with fake degrees and children going to doctors with degrees from some unknown Caribbean island, we need as a society to protect the degrees that provide those credentials," says Contreras. To their credit, some degree mills, such as Breyer State, acknowledge that their accreditation is not officially recognized. But they, in turn, exploit the lack of enforced standards by noting, "There is no mandate by federal law for a School, College, or University to be accredited. ... [E]ach accreditor has their own unique standards and, thus, there is no national consistency in institutional accreditation." This is, to put it nicely, extremely disingenuous, leading applicants to assume that accreditation from Breyer State's csccs is as good as that from a federally recognized body. And, until the feds get serious about accreditation, degree mills like Breyer State and American World will continue to scam students, employers, and the government itself.