It’s surprising how many house pets hold advanced degrees. Last year, a dog received his M.B.A. from the American University of London, a non-accredited distance-learning institution. It feels as if I should add “not to be confused with the American University in London,” but getting people to confuse them seems like a pretty basic feature of the whole AUOL marketing strategy.
The dog, identified as “Peter Smith” on his diploma, goes by Pete. He was granted his degree on the basis of “previous experiential learning,” along with payment of £4500. The funds were provided by a BBC news program, which also helped Pete fill out the paperwork. The American University of London required that Pete submit evidence of his qualifications as well as a photograph. The applicant submitted neither, as the BBC website explains, “since the qualifications did not exist and the applicant was a dog.”
The program found hundreds of people listing AUOL degrees in their profiles on social networking sites, including “a senior nuclear industry executive who was in charge of selling a new generation of reactors in the UK.” (For more examples of suspiciously credentialed dogs and cats, see this list.)
Inside Higher Ed reports on diploma mills and fake degrees from time to time but can’t possibly cover every revelation that some professor or state official has a bogus degree, or that a “university” turns out to be run by a convicted felon from his prison cell. Even a blog dedicated to the topic, Diploma Mill News, links to just a fraction of the stories out there. Keeping up with every case is just too much; nobody has that much Schaudenfreude in them.
By contrast, scholarly work on the topic of counterfeit credentials has appeared at a glacial pace. Allen Ezell and John Bear’s expose Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry -- first published by Prometheus Books in 2005 and updated in 2012 – points out that academic research on the phenomenon amounts is conspicuously lacking, despite the scale of the problem. (Ezell headed up the Federal Bureau of Investigation's “DipScam” investigation of diploma mills that ran from 1980 through 1991.)
The one notable exception to that blind spot is the history of medical quackery, which enjoyed its golden age in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of dubious practitioners throughout the United States got their degrees from correspondence course or fly-by-night medical schools. The fight to put both the quacks and the quack academies out of business reached its peak during the 1920s and ‘30s, under the tireless leadership of Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
H.L. Mencken was not persuaded that getting rid of medical charlatans was such a good idea. “As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns,” he wrote in a newspaper column from 1924, “with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence.... It eases and soothes me to see [the quacks] so prosperous, for they counteract the evil work of the so-called science of public hygiene, which now seeks to make imbeciles immortal.” (On the other hand, he did point out quacks worth pursuing to Fishbein.)
The pioneering scholar of American medical shadiness was James Harvey Young, an emeritus professor of history at Emory University when he died in 2006, who first published on the subject in the early 1950s. Princeton University Press is reissuing American Health Quackery: Collected Essays of James Harvey Young in paperback this month. But while patent medicines and dubious treatments are now routinely discussed in books and papers on medical history, very little research has appeared on the institutions -- or businesses, if you prefer -- that sold credentials to the snake-oil merchants of yesteryear.
There are plenty still around, incidentally. In Degree Mills, Ezell and Bear cite a Congressional committee’s estimate from 1986 that there were more than 5,000 fake doctors practicing in the United States. The figure must be several times that by now.
The demand for fraudulent diplomas comes from a much wider range of aspiring professionals now than in the patent-medicine era – as the example of Pete, the canine MBA, may suggest. The most general social-scientific study of the problem seems to be “An Introduction to the Economics of Fake Degrees,” published in the Journal of Economic Issues in 2008.
The authors -- Gilles Grolleau, Tarik Lakhal, and Naoufel Mzoughi – are French economists who do what they can with the available pool of data, which is neither wide nor deep. “While the problem of diploma mills and fake degrees is acknowledged to be serious,” they write, “it is difficult to estimate their full impact because it is an illegal activity and there is an obvious lack of data and rigorous studies. Several official investigations point to the magnitude and implications of this dubious activity. These investigations appear to underestimate the expanding scale and dimensions of this multimillion-dollar industry.”
Grolleau et al. distinguish between counterfeit degrees (fabricated documents not actually issued by the institutions the holder thereby claims to have attended) and “degrees from bogus universities, sold outright and that can require some academic work but significantly less than comparable, legitimate accredited programs.” The latter institutions, also known as diploma mills, are sometimes backed up by equally dubious accreditation “agencies.” A table in the paper indicates that more than 200 such “accreditation mills” (defined as agencies not recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education) were operating as of 2004.
The authors work out the various costs, benefits, and risk factors involved in the fake degree market, but the effort seems very provisional, not to say pointless, in the absence of solid data. They write that “fake degrees allow their holders to ‘free ride’ on the rights and benefits normally tied to legitimate degrees, without the normal investment of human capital,” which may be less of a tautology than “A=A” but not by much.
The fake-degree consumer’s investment “costs” include the price demanded by the vendor but also "other ‘costs,’ such as … the fear of being discovered and stigmatized.” I suppose so, but it’s hardly the sort of expense that can be monetized. By contrast, the cost to legitimate higher-education institutions for “protecting their intellectual property rights by conducting investigations and mounting litigation against fakers” might be more readily quantified, at least in principle.
The authors state, sensibly enough: “The resources allocated to decrease the number of fake degrees should be set equal to the pecuniary value of the marginal social damage caused by the existence of the fakes, at the point of the optimal level of fakes.” But then they point to “the difficulty in measuring the value of the damage and the cost of eliminating it completely.”
So: If we had some data about the problem, we could figure out how much of a problem it is, but we don’t -- and that, too, is a problem.
Still, the paper is a reminder that empirical research on the whole scurvy topic would be of value – especially when you consider that in the United States, according to one study, “at least 3 percent of all doctorate degrees in occupational safety and health and related areas” are bogus. Also keep in mind Ezell Bear’s estimate in Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry that 40-45,000 legitimate Ph.D.s are awarded annually in the U.S. -- while another 50,000 spurious Ph.D.s are purchased here.
“In other words,” they write, “more than half of all people claiming a new Ph.D. have a fake degree.” And so I have decided not to make matters worse by purchasing one for my calico cat, despite “significant experiential learning” from her studies in ornithology.
The College Board has issued a statement on behalf of itself and the Educational Testing Service, apologizing for a T-shirt that was made and sold by high school and college teachers who gathered in June to grade Advancement Placement exams in world history. Those who grade the exams have a tradition of creating a T-shirt, but this year's version offended many Asian Americans who were at the event. The T-shirt plays off of the Chinese Communist revolution in ways that struck critics as offensive. (There was a question about it on the AP exam.)
"It is unacceptable that one of the AP Exam Readers created a T-shirt that mocked historical events that were the cause of great pain and suffering, and promulgated racist stereotypes that further marginalize a racial minority," said the College Board statement.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a group known by its acronym ALEC that drafts model state legislation that is frequently used by conservative legislators, has its eye on higher education. Draft legislation that will be considered at ALEC's annual meeting would require all public four-year institutions to offer a $10,000 degree and would require that 10 percent of all degrees be awarded through this model. The legislation specifies that states could achieve these savings through online and competency education.
Hofstra University has announced that, starting with the class admitted to enroll in the fall of 2015, applicants will no longer be required to submit SAT or ACT scores. "[W]e have concluded that standardized tests are not the most important predictors of academic success at Hofstra," said a statement from the university. "Rather, our studies show that the best predictor of success in college is a student’s high school academic record and the performance of day-to-day work in the classroom. For these reasons the high school transcript will continue to be the primary focus of our application review, with or without standardized test scores."
For many years, some colleges have used "demonstrated interest" -- measures of how committed an applicant is to a college -- to make some admissions and financial aid decisions. Now some top M.B.A. programs are doing the same thing, using software to track how many admissions information sessions applicants attend or how many times they have emailed the admissions office, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. With this trend, the article noted, "antsy MBA candidates who flood admissions offices with e-mails may have unwittingly given themselves a better shot at acceptance."
Apartment-style dorm rooms are the Hot New Thing at some colleges nowadays. Single rooms instead of doubles or even quads, exterior doors instead of crowded hallways, private bathrooms instead of gang showers and those icky shared toilets, even mini-kitchens instead of the noisy dining hall – all have an undeniable appeal for incoming freshmen looking to maximize the more adult features of undergraduate life.
Many contemporary students grew up with their own bedrooms, and perhaps even their own bathrooms, and may recoil from sharing their personal spaces with that mysterious stranger, the roommate or hallmate. So colleges and universities, particularly sensitive to the preferences of full-pay students, are starting to move away from traditional long-hallway dorms to more individualized rooms, some with generous amenities. Prospective students seem to love the idea.
They shouldn’t. Apartment-style dorms can be deadly for a student’s long-term success in college, isolating newcomers at exactly the moment when they most need to be reaching out and making friends. Early connections, made when students are most available for meeting new people, are a crucial first step to the community integration that scholars have long known is crucial to student retention and success. When my former student and current doctoral student Chris Takacs and I followed nearly 100 students throughout college and afterward in researching our book How College Works, we found that “high contact” settings such as traditional dorms – featuring long hallways, shared rooms and common bathrooms, where students have no choice but to meet lots of peers – are the single best device for helping new students to solve their biggest problem: finding friends. And dorms are especially valuable for students who are shy, unusually nervous about coming to college, or otherwise feel excluded. Finding one buddy to pal around with is all that’s needed to ensure a positive first-year experience.
Of course dorms aren’t the only place that students make friends. Extracurricular groups that convene frequently and include a couple dozen members are a great source of potential companions (smaller groups don’t work as well). Greek letter societies, sports teams, campus newspapers, and larger musical ensembles serve the purpose. At the college we studied, the choir -- with over 70 members, a dynamic director, rigorous auditions, and frequent rehearsals and performances -- offered a marvelous opportunity for its members to form close bonds, which in turn helped them become, in our network analysis, some of the most socially connected students at the college.
Still, dormitories are different: they are open to everyone. You don’t need any special talent or athletic ability or an outgoing personality to live in a dorm and thus benefit from meeting a variety of peers. Dorms aren’t exclusive. After that first year, a student will likely have made friends and found his or her niche, but until then, broad exposure seems to be the best pathway to success.
So how can admissions and student affairs staff convince incoming students to live in those overcrowded rooms and share their showers with people they may not even like? And how can college presidents be convinced not to engage in the housing arms race of catering to the students who seem to favor luxury and privacy over the group experience? Apartments are appealing, after all, and colleges need the money that full-pay students will pony up for their own little pad.
Try anything. Tell students the odds are they will have a more successful and happy first year at college in this kind of dorm. If you have any money, recarpet the long hallways, improve the shared bathrooms, and upgrade the dorm rooms in that big old building. Try to keep the showers clean. If the rooms can’t be quads, at least make them doubles; if they are singles, at least keep the common bathrooms. Point out that you charge less for the old-fashioned dorm rooms.
Tell prospective students that they’ll meet more people in a dorm; give dorm residents priority in getting sophomore housing. Focus your programming efforts on the early part of the first year, when students are socially available – and often looking for friends. Remember, when more students have repeated, obligatory exposure to a sizable group of other students, more of them will find the one or two buddies who see them through their first year.
Ten years ago this August my wife and I drove our youngest daughter Rebecca down to New York City, to help her move into a freshman dorm at Fordham University. We arrived amid a sea of parents, siblings, RAs, and energetic young women hauling those loaded duffel bags and laundry baskets up big institutional stairwells to the fourth floor. The scene at the top was unforgettable: scores of people, crowded into a long hallway, with 20 rooms – all quads, bunk beds stacked up – lined down a long hallway, girls laughing and talking, helping each other out, and making introductions all around. A young faculty couple with a baby lived in an apartment at the end of the hall, and a priest had a room on the floor below. It was a scene of gentle pandemonium.
Becca stood there, her mouth hanging open in amazement, not yet realizing that four of her best friends in life would come from that hallway. My wife and I, both professors, smiled at each other. “This,” we thought, “will be great.”
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
Northwestern University's law school this spring expelled a student -- months from graduation -- who is a felon who has been convicted for falsely impersonating a lawyer, The Chicago Tribune reported. The student who was kicked out then sued the university, although a settlement appears to have been reached. Northwestern faulted the student for failing to disclose his past, and said that he was an "undesirable" candidate to become a lawyer. The would-be lawyer disputes the charges from his past, but he also argues that Northwestern never asked him about his criminal history.