In Oregon, degrees from unaccredited institutions that are not licensed in the state are about to carry the higher ed version of a scarlet letter.
A bill, which would require disclaimers on any résumé bearing suspect degrees, passed through the Oregon legislature last week, and is expected to become law soon. The bill stems from a lawsuit against Oregon that was settled earlier this year. Prior to the lawsuit, the state fined or prosecuted anyone doing business in Oregon who claimed a degree from an unaccredited institution not licensed in Oregon.
In the settlement, Oregon agreed to allow people with any degree to say they have that degree. But, to protect the state from inadequate degrees granted in other states, the settlement outlined a new bill -- which has since moved through the legislature -- that forces degree holders to tell employers that their diploma came from an unaccredited institution.
Kennedy-Western University, which is not accredited, but is licensed in Wyoming to grant degrees, sued Oregon in federal court in the case that was settled earlier this year. Kennedy-Western argued that the state violated free speech by barring people working in Oregon from putting Kennedy-Western degrees on their résumés. State officials said that they settled because they feared losing the First Amendment case, and that the new approach would accomplish similar goals without raising free speech issues.
So now Kennedy-Western grads can proudly proclaim their degrees … sort of. Under the new law, those graduates will have to follow mention of their degree by saying that their alma mater "does not have accreditation recognized by the United States Department of Education and has not been approved by the [Oregon] Office of Degree Authorization,” the official language dictated by the legislation. The bill, which received only 3 “nay” votes in the 60-member House and 30-member Senate, says that the “disclaimer shall be made in any résumé, letterhead, business card, announcement or advertisement in which the person is claiming or representing to have an academic degree” from an institution that is not either accredited, or licensed to give degrees by the state.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon Attorney General, said the bill has an “emergency clause” that will propel it into law as soon as Governor Ted Kulongoski signs it, which Neely said will happen next week.
Kennedy-Western officials did not return calls for comment Wednesday. In an interview in August 2004 on National Public Radio, Paul Saultman, president and CEO, said that there are people “that earned a bachelor's or a master's degree from Kennedy Western, but they can't articulate that. In other words, they have to be muzzled. So we think that's a violation of free speech.”
Oregon has been a leader in the charge to control what it sees as inadequate degrees. State officials said other states, including Maine, Nevada and Texas in the last few months, have followed Oregon’s lead over the years and passed various other laws clamping down on what they consider phony degrees, although none of those states have laws like Oregon's new one.
Despite the fact the state settled the suite, Oregon officials see the new bill as a successful continuation of their battle. "Before it was a violation to claim the degree at all, now it is a violation to use the degree without appending the disclaimer," said Alan Contreras, administrator in Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization. People who do not use the disclaimer will face up to a $1,000 fine for every violation. They could also face criminal prosecution if the omission is a potential public threat, such as in the case of a public health worker.
"The settlement consisted of them slapping us in the face, and us kicking them in the knees,” Contreras added.
He does not anticipate any great changes because of the impending law, but said his office will increase their outreach to employers to try to make them aware of the law, and to help them identify degrees that should carry the scarlet disclaimers. The office still maintains the right to license unaccredited institutions in Oregon. But, in a state vigilant about its vetting, that is unlikely Kennedy-Western, which saw one of its own former admissions counselors tell a U.S. Senate hearing  in 2004 that “a Kennedy-Western education has no value.”
Contreras said when he tells people, “Your degree is bogus, and here’s why,” they generally take the appropriate actions. But some experts weren’t so optimistic.
If people are bent on deceiving employers, “there won’t be much difference for them, unless employers get really good at enforcement, which isn’t easy,” said John Bear, author of Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, and co-author of Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold Over A Million Fake Diplomas.  He said that many of the people who use fake degrees know exactly what they are doing.
He noted that when the defunct LaSalle University in Louisiana, which he called a “degree mill,” was raided by the FBI in 1996, some graduates opted not to give up their degrees in return for their money back. Still, Bear said he expects other states to follow Oregon’s lead, as they have done in the past. He said the new law seems like a reasonable example of how a diligent state can protect itself from more lax ones, like Wyoming, California, Hawaii, Alabama and Missouri. “If only [those states] would consider something like this,” he said. “But at least now you can tell someone, ‘Well, I hope you never work in Oregon, because your degree won’t be good there, and you’ll have that problem with other states in the future.’”
Other experts said that with the proliferation of online education, federal regulation may be the best way to go.
"How to deal with diploma mills as a matter of consumer protection has proven to be a vexing problem over the years,” said Martin Michaelson, a Washington lawyer who represents colleges and universities. “A consistent national approach, at least in the short to medium term, is unlikely.”