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.
Two top officials of community college are found to have doctorates from unaccredited institutions, raising questions about why nobody noticed their credentials before, and why no rules appear to be broken.
The world of genuine education awoke to a rude surprise on July 29, 2006, for on the previous day Mr. Justice Eady of the British High Court ruled that the Daily Mirror newspaper had libeled a celebrity hypnotist by saying (in articles in 1997 and again in 2003) that his Ph.D. from LaSalle University of Louisiana was bogus. The hypnotist, one Paul McKenna, who performs on television and works with many famous clients, had no other degrees at the time. The judge said that the newspaper had not shown that its statements about LaSalle were “substantially true.”
This is nonsense. Seek in vain for LaSalle of Louisiana, unless you seek among the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the courts of Louisiana or the records of the federal prison in Beaumont, Tex., where LaSalle’s owner, who used various names, served time for running the fraudulent college from which McKenna acquired his degree.
Having read the entire opinion, I can say that Eady deserves an award for having listened to such a peculiar case filled with half-truths, quarter-truths and untruths and actually written an exceptionally clear, thoughtful opinion about it. That his conclusions are fundamentally mistaken on the question of whether LaSalle degrees are degrees in the usual sense of the term has as much to do with the exceptional obscurity of American education law as it does about Mr. McKenna’s actions.
It also sets a very bad precedent for the international use of degrees.
Anyone interested in the actual history of LaSalle can read about it in Allen Ezell and John Bear’s book Degree Mills (Prometheus, 2005). LaSalle, its history, its brethren and its spawn are all detailed there. A similar account is available in the new, now ironically named publication “Guide to Bogus Institutions and Documents” (June, 2006) from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.
McKenna argued successfully that he did not know that LaSalle’s accreditation was baseless, and the judge agreed that it was unreasonable for him to have been expected to know. That is doubtful but not outrageous, considering that Mr. McKenna is an uneducated person who had to go outside the U.K. to acquire any degree. But the judge went on to say, as quoted by Michael Herman in the Times of London:
“…whatever one may think of the academic quality of his work, or of the degree granted by LaSalle, it would not be accurate to describe it as “bogus.”
These words appear mild and even judicial in temperament, but consider what they mean in reality. A judge in one country has declared that an entity in another country is a legitimate doctoral institution, contrary to the universally understood status of the degree supplier in its home country. The misunderstanding comes about because the judge does not realize that authority to issue degrees in the U.S. comes from states that may in fact have no meaningful standards for such programs. This was the case in Louisiana in the 1990s, as it is in Mississippi today. It can therefore be true, as the judge found, that LaSalle was issuing degrees legally under the laws of Louisiana, but also true, which the judge did not grasp, that the degrees issued did not represent academic learning.
The term “bogus” as tossed around in this case did not refer to the legality of the institution; it referred to the nature of its product relative to the standard expectations of a college degree.
The McKenna case therefore sets a strange precedent for who decides the international use of degrees.Until now, we could generally assume that each country got to decide what is and is not a meaningful college degree within its own boundaries. The fact that LaSalle was briefly allowed to operate as a religious exempt institution in Louisiana (a status acquired by building a church on its lawn) became irrelevant on the day that its owner was convicted of degree fraud, and of course its Ph.D.s were risible from the beginning.
All degrees are by definition academic credentials. Doctoral degrees issued by LaSalle are invalid academic credentials. LaSalle never issued what anyone in American education would accept as genuine degrees. The fact that a few U.S. employers mistakenly allowed such degrees to be used speaks of shoddy screening practices at employers who hired LaSalle degree holders, not of degree acceptability. The fact that McKenna claimed to have sent course work to the owner of LaSalle does not make its degrees genuine.
Eady’s opinion assumes that any entity claiming to be a college is capable of issuing genuine doctoral degrees, provided that it can produce the barest mist of a holographic image of pillars around itself. I readily concede that he has the right to do that within the norms of British law, provided that he is making that decision about a British degree grantor. In the McKenna case, he made that decision about a U.S. degree-grantor, which he should not have, and he got it wrong.
In paragraph 36 of the opinion, the judge wrote that whether a LaSalle degree is “scholarship worthy of academic recognition” is not the matter being litigated. The fact that the judge italicized the word “academic” only emphasizes the underlying problem: All Ph.D.s are academic, and must be so to be genuine. There is no such thing as a nonacademic Ph.D. In paragraph 60, Eady repeats this odd view when he mentions the distinction between the academic value of the Ph.D. and “its practical use.” It is not difficult to get some practical use out of a bogus Ph.D. -- for a while. If that were the standard upon which issuance of Ph.D.s were to be based, we’d all be calling each other Doctor.
It is less important that Eady got it wrong than that he made a determination about a foreign college contrary to how the home nation treats that college. I hope that other British judges do not make the same error, and that this case remains, not an anomaly, but an utterly freakish result, as it is widely viewed in the education community.
Finally, it is important to consider the difference between this case and the recent cases involving fake schools in Liberia. In the St. Regis case, which involved the issuance of documents that appeared genuine, approving that entity to issue Liberian degrees a U.S. court was presented evidence that the college’s approval in Liberia had been obtained through fradulent means and bribery, and that the approval was therefore invalid, as were the degrees issued by the entities. Any nation should have the right to decide that degrees issued by a so-called college in a foreign country are substandard or fake, and therefore unusable in the receiving nation, based on evidence supporting that view, because degrees cannot be imported like coal: Degrees are not commodities and do not contain the same ingredients. All nations need the right to protect their citizens from fakes.
No nation has the right to compel acceptance of degrees issued by a fake school in another country, simply because someone thought it was a real school. Mr. Justice Eady has done the academic community a favor by saying that the Mirror newspaper had not shown that LaSalle was sufficiently bogus. This should wake up the British ministry in charge of postsecondary education, which will, I hope, establish a meaningful screening system for grossly substandard degrees issued by fly-by-night suppliers in other countries.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.