Regulating diploma mills is a little like herding cats.
The institutions, which offer fraudulent degrees in exchange for cash and little or no academic work, crop up overnight and disappear nearly as fast, when consumer complaints rise or law enforcement officials catch the scent. State and federal lawmakers yearn to crack down on these "colleges," but because they're hard to define and hard to nail down, there's often little they can do.
Except provide more information for consumers, and that's what several government agencies did at a Capitol Hill news conference on Tuesday. The U.S. Education Department unveiled a new searchable Web site that lists all institutions that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the department. The Federal Trade Commission issued a new publication to help employers decide whether their employees' (or potential employees') academic credentials are up to snuff. And the Office of Personnel Management revised its guidelines for the educational requirements of federal employees.
"The tools unveiled today, particularly the Department of Education's Web site, are vital first steps in helping consumers and employers avoid falling victim to diploma mills," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican, who, with Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, have focused Congress's attention on the issue.
Collins sponsored a series of hearings last year in which she revealed that scores of federal employees had gotten raises based on fraudulently obtained credentials, and some had even had their coursework paid for by government agencies, at taxpayer expense.
Castle acknowledged that the government's hands were largely tied. "We don't seem to have a system completely in place to deal with this problem," he said. "I'd love to write the statute" that would ban diploma mills from operating, he said, but "it's not as black and white as we might like it."
That's partly because of the challenge of defining what a diploma mill is. Sally L. Stroup, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department, said that the department contemplated but rejected the idea of trying to develop a list of diploma mills, but opted instead to put on the Web a "positive" list of all institutions that are clearly not diploma mills, by virtue of being accredited by a regional or national body recognized by the department.
Stroup said department officials have long had this information "at our fingertips" but "weren't taking advantage of it." (The American Council on Education publishes its own book of accredited institutions, for which it charges $89. The group issued a news release Tuesday that called its book "the only official guide" to accredited colleges.)
She was careful to note that some legitimate institutions choose not to be accredited, and that an institution's failure to appear on the department's new list does not mean that it is a diploma mill. If a student, parent or employer is looking for information about a college that is not on the list, she said, "it means they need to do a little more research." This is a "first source," Stroup said.