Among Al Alt's duties at Yuba College is making sure the degrees are legitimate -- at the point of hire, or when professors or others at the California community college file the paperwork to qualify for higher pay based on earning a new degree.
Over the past few years, Alt has learned the various places one can reliably check to be sure an institution is accredited by a recognized agency -- one of the key requirements at Yuba and most colleges to get credit for a degree. But in a sign of how widespread the problem may be with unaccredited degrees, Alt last year had to tell his bosses to lower his own salary: A doctorate he earned after he started work at Yuba -- and for which he was paid extra -- apparently came from an unaccredited institution, he said, so his salary needed to be cut.
Yuba has found that Alt did nothing wrong -- he believed that Madison University, which awarded him the doctorate, was legitimate and was in the process of earning appropriate accreditation. Madison today makes no such claims -- although it still operates. (In case you are wondering, we're not talking about the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or James Madison University, but just Madison University, which operates online out of Gulfport, Miss.)
Alt's story may illustrate the vigilance with which colleges need to monitor degrees and just who is awarding them.
He started work on his doctorate in 2001, in education administration, and focused on online universities. He recalls that Madison said it was accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council -- which is a recognized accrediting body. Alt completed work on his doctorate in 2004, and he said that the rigor seemed comparable to courses he had taken for his master's degree at California State University at Chico. There may have been clues, of course. Alt said that while he had to submit a dissertation, he never had to defend it. At any rate, he was awarded his doctorate in 2004, processed the paperwork, and his salary went up by around $2,000.
In 2006 and 2007, Alt began to worry. In his work, he was questioning the legitimacy of degrees awarded to some Yuba employees and several responded by asking him how he had any basis for judging them when he had a dubious doctorate. It was the first he had heard any questions, he said, about the legitimacy of Madison. So Alt started investigating his own degree. The first thing he noticed was that Madison's Web site had no mention of accreditation -- although that's not how he remembers it previously.
The section on Madison's Web site  that is called "accreditation and recognition" pretty much says that Madison isn't accredited.
"Madison University is a private, postsecondary distance learning institution. The courses and curriculum we provide consist of college level material that is consistent with the academic quality of traditional campus based programs. Our mission is to provide mid-career professionals with a flexible and affordable way to obtain higher education and complete their degrees," the Web site says. "The university will accept transfer credits from any accredited university, community college or technical institution regardless of the method in which the courses were completed. Madison University has an open enrollment program with a study-at your-own-pace philosophy. The university is not not listed with any government agency or the U.S. Department of Education and is not designed to meet the needs of students intending to use federal funds."
The Web site goes on to say that Madison is a member of the United States Distance Learning Association, but that's an association, not an accreditor, and that association specifically lists Madison -- along with many other members -- as non-accredited institutions.  The Distance Education and Training Council, which is an accreditor, says that Madison is not accredited and has never applied. Michael P. Lambert, executive director of the council, said that he frequently hears about colleges saying that they are applying to be members. But while many accrediting groups have provisional recognition procedures, Lambert said that his doesn't, and that colleges are either accredited or not, and that "seeking accreditation" can mean someone called his office once, but nothing more.
Alt said that, upon discovering this, he called, sent letters, and called again to Madison -- trying to get information to confirm that when he earned his degree, the university was accredited. He said he couldn't get anyone to call him back. While Alt said he feels that he learned from the program and worked hard, when he determined that he couldn't demonstrate that his doctorate was from an accredited institution, he reported his situation to superiors and asked to have his salary lowered back to what it would be without a doctorate. (Alt's position did not require a doctorate, and he was hired without one, so he noted that this did not affect his qualifications to perform his job.)
Madison's current status is unclear. A spokeswoman told The Appeal-Democrat, a California newspaper that first wrote about Alt's disappearing doctorate, that its programs were "100 percent completely legitimate," but that Madison was closed and was seeking accreditation. A call to Madison Monday was answered by someone who said that the college was open and accepting students. That person said only one person at Madison could answer reporters' questions. She did not respond to messages.
While Madison currently claims no accreditation, it has in the past claimed to be accredited by the World Association of Universities and Colleges. Past versions of Madison's Web site,  available through the Wayback Machine, show that the association is described as "a global accreditation association." The World Association of University and Colleges' Web site  notes that it is not recognized by the U.S. government and portrays the official accreditation system as one in which accreditors and colleges "are believed to work together with the purpose of eliminating schools who are financially competitive with traditional residence institutions."
Alan L. Contreras, administrator of the Office of Degree Authorization of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, said that there are books published annually listing accredited institutions and that he was "astonished" that a college official responsible for enforcing degree rules could miss relevant information. But the problem is broader, he said, in that Mississippi has been a "cesspool of degree mills," although he said that the state is making progress on fixing that.
Contreras noted that California has been heatedly debating how to regulate for-profit colleges, and said that this incident showed just why tough oversight is needed.
Alt said that it has become much easier in recent years to check all the possible places a college could be accredited -- and that such checks are important. He said he would advise anyone considering a course from an institution that wasn't 100 percent known as legit to "get written verification on who they are accredited by, how long they are accredited for, and any conditions on accreditation."
And Alt said to remember that there are plenty of people like him -- people who move into higher education without knowing on Day One all about things to be wary of. "I was brand new in the system," he said. "This could happen to someone new to the system."