Taking Aim at Diploma Mills

January 29, 2010

WASHINGTON -- It's not easy to find fans of diploma mills -- advocates for institutions that award bogus degrees for no work don't tend to make their feelings known in polite company. But in the United States and abroad, the phony diploma industry has remained remarkably resilient, fed by often weak regulatory oversight, a ready market of workers looking for easily attained credentials needed for career advancement -- and, not unimportantly, unclear definitions of what a degree mill is that can make it difficult to crack down on them even when they are prosecuted.

While they portrayed it as far from a panacea, a U.S. Congressman and several supporters unveiled legislation Thursday that aims to make at least some progress on all of those fronts. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.), would (1) cement in federal law definitions of "diploma mills" and "accreditation mills" (the unauthorized agencies from which the phony institutions claim to derive their authority to operate), (2) bar federal agencies from using degrees from diploma mills to provide jobs or promotions that depend on candidates' educational credentials, and (3) give the Federal Trade Commission more authority to define and crack down on deceptive practices by dubious institutions.

"We have an obligation to see to it that people have confidence in our institutions, particularly our institutions of higher education, and in the credentials they provide," Bishop said Thursday at an international forum sponsored by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which has undertaken a series of efforts to rein in unauthorized colleges and degrees. "I don't presume that our bill will solve all the problems," but it's a start, said the New York representative, a longtime administrator at Southampton College, now part of Long Island University.

Defining the exact scope of the diploma mill "industry" and the extent of the havoc it wreaks is difficult precisely because of the underground nature of many of the institutions, which one audience member at Thursday's meeting described as "chameleon-like" and another compared to the "Shmoo," the L'il Abner characters that "multiplied at such an incredible rate." George Gollin, a physics professor who has developed a growing side interest in unaccredited degree-granting institutions and advised Bishop, estimated that such entities award as many as 200,000 credentials a year and that the federal government spends roughly $300 million a year on raises alone for employees who got jobs or promotions using fraudulent degrees or certificates.

Scrutiny, regulation and even law enforcement involving diploma mills has increased in recent years, with states such as Mississippi and Wyoming toughening their laws, the Government Accountability Office documenting the prevalence of diploma mill credentials among federal workers, and the federal government (with Gollin's help) successfully prosecuting the owners of several now-shuttered diploma mills for fraud.

But even some of those efforts have been made more difficult by a lack of tools. Defense lawyers in the aforementioned federal prosecution, involving St. Regis University, argued that their clients could not be prosecuted because there was no legal definition of a diploma mill, Gollin said Thursday.

The fact that the proposed legislation would inject into federal law a clear-cut definition of a diploma mill is one of several reasons that the bill would be "an excellent step" toward reining in diploma mills, Gollin said.

The measure would define as a diploma mill any entity that (1) is not accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Education Department or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or authorized to grant postsecondary degrees by a state government (business licensure is not sufficient) and (2) offers degrees or other credentials for a fee but requires "little or no education or course work" to gain that credential. So while some people consider all unaccredited institutions to be diploma mills, and some states recognize only those degrees awarded by accredited colleges, the proposed law would make clear that institutions that choose not to seek regional or national accreditation but earn a state's approval to grant degrees will not be considered a diploma mill if they require work by students to earn degrees.

Oddly, the legislation would define differently those degrees that can be legitimately used to qualify for a federal job or promotion. "[O]nly a degree from a degree-granting institution that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association recognized by the Secretary of Education ... shall be acceptable" for such purposes, the legislation reads. So it would appear, as the bill is written now, that the federal government would not recognize as legitimate degrees awarded by unaccredited institutions that are authorized by a state to award degrees -- even though the measure would not define those institutions as diploma mills.

The bill would also direct the Federal Trade Commission to establish regulations that would define as "unfair and deceptive act(s) or practice(s)" a fairly wide array of activities:

  • Issuance of a degree or other credential by an entity that is not recognized as legitimate by the U.S. education secretary, "if such degree, diploma, certificate or similar document misrepresents, directly or indirectly, the subject matter, substance, or content of the course of study or any other material fact concerning the course of study" for which the credential was awarded.
  • The issuing of an "academic, professional, or occupational degree" by an institution not accredited by the education secretary or CHEA "unless the entity offering or conferring" the degree "clearly and conspicuously discloses, in all advertising and promotional materials that contain a reference to such a degree, that the awarding of the degree has not been so authorized or that the entity offering or conferring the degree has not been so approved or recognized."
  • Any advertising or promotional claims that an educational entity is accredited unless it is accredited by a federally or CHEA-recognized agency, or any claim of approved status by an unaccredited entity that "misrepresents, directly or indirectly, the nature, extent, or credibility of such approval."
  • The issuing of accreditation to a degree-granting institution by any entity "that is not recognized for accreditation purposes" by the education secretary or CHEA.

International educators who were briefed by Bishop on the proposed legislation at the CHEA meeting Thursday praised the Congressman and his colleagues for attacking the diploma mill issue, even as they noted various ways in which this U.S. legislation would do little to help the issues they are wrestling with on their home turf.

"The leadership of the U.S. will do wonders worldwide," said David Woodhouse, president of the Australian Universities Quality Agency.

Carolyn Campbell, head of international affairs at Britain's Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, said that even potentially strong and aggressive national laws like the one Bishop is proposing will do little to stop the many diploma mills that operate online. "Who's policing the Internet?" she said. "How can we engage the Internet service providers [and entities that deal with Internet names and addresses] to take interest in this, to cut off the oxygen, and survival, to these providers?"

Bishop acknowledged the limitations of the legislation, but said he hoped that by stepping up law enforcement, and potentially cutting off demand among at least federal employees for such credentials, the bill could potentially have an effect beyond the United States.

And that momentum could be greater if the federal legislation were to be mimicked in various American states, further restricting demand for promotion-aiding fake degrees among the hundreds of thousands of state employees, supporters of the bill said.

So given how hard it is to find people who support diploma mills, the federal legislation should face no hurdles -- right? Bishop was asked.

"I can't imagine any reasonable person taking issue with this bill," the New York representative said. But he pointed out that language similar to this measure's was attached in 2008 to the Higher Education Opportunity Act legislation, but was stripped from the bill in negotiations with the Senate, for reasons he did not understand, Bishop said.

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