Like Dodge City in the old West,online education represents wide-open, wild country. In continuing education, career training or in any area where no professional standards exist, anyone can establish their own certification standards and open a spurious educational institution. Nobody can do much about it. Even the term university itself is not well defined or governed by any regulation in the United States, or around the world.
It’s not much different on the Internet. There are few to no regulations controlling who can post what on the Web. Anyone who has the $20 fee can register and use an .edu domain name. Fraudulent organizations have established legitimate looking Web sites and polished brochures that show pictures of beautiful campuses with stately buildings.
It’s no wonder that diploma mills, educational institutions that sell degrees with no or very little quality control, are proliferating. The advent of inexpensive laser printers, faxes, overnight delivery services, 800, 888, 877, and 500 telephone numbers, and the growth of the Internet, has made diploma mills a growth industry. The latest edition of “Bear’s Guide to Earning Nontraditional Degrees,” unavoidably includes 481 phony schools.
Two Types of Bogus Programs
There are two kinds of diploma mills, those which offer low quality, specious programs or courses, and those that merely sell you a copy of a degree with your name on it.
A recent edition of “U.S. News & World Report” described the problems Margaret Chester encountered while getting her doctorate in health and human services at Columbia Pacific University. Based in San Rafael, California, the distance learning institution offered a self-paced curriculum that would allow Chester to earn her Ph.D. while working, raising a family, and tending a farm in rural Hawaii. Each student prepared a “learning contract” that defined his or her own path of independent study. There would be no classes or exams. Everything went smoothly at first. The 25 or so papers Chester wrote garnered good grades. But once she began preparing her dissertation, Chester began to worry. She said her faculty adviser rejected three proposals without providing meaningful advice. Upon finding that the school had operated without state approval to grant degrees, after much hard work and having already spent $8,600 in tuition alone, she withdrew.
In 1999, Louisiana shut down Columbia State University, a notorious degree mill that advertised in prestigious publications such as “The Economist” that students could earn “legal, accredited” degrees in 27 days. It also had a professional looking Web site and brochure, which showed pictures of a beautiful campus and stately buildings. The “official seal” shown on Page 5 of the brochure was never an accrediting agency. Columbia State’s real “administrative office” was mailbox No.231 at Mailboxes Etc. in Metairie, Louisiana.
When the two to three thousand dollar “tuition” fees was received, orders were forwarded to a California office where “admissions officers” fielded calls and mailed out thousands of Columbia State Diplomas. Buyers of these bogus degrees included people from the highest levels. As reported on the Good Morning America show, the FBI found two staffers from the Clinton White House had purchased Columbia State degrees.
By the time of the shutdown, Louisiana officials estimated the school was taking in as much as $1 million a month from “students.” Columbia State’s owner, Ronald Pellar, also know as Dr. Dante and the seventh ex-husband of film star Lana Turner, was convicted under federal fair trade laws of running a fake cosmetology school in California in the early 1990′s. He fled before being sentenced and is believed to be in Mexico.
How Do These Bogus Campuses Survive?
Fraudulent educational institutions continue to proliferate. These diploma mills survive by operating in states with lax law governing schools, such as California, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana. They assume identities of well-known schools or as “religious” organizations. Because of constitutional safeguards in the United States guarantee separation of church and state, most states have been reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches, including their right to grant degrees. John Bear has asked, “What about a school that requires a five page dissertation before awarding the Doctorate. Nobody seems to want the government stepping in to evaluate doctoral dissertations before permitting schools to grant degrees.”
To further protect themselves and to take advantage of less rigorous laws, diploma mills often operate out of multiple political jurisdictions. Or they sell their products only in other states or other countries. Many degree mills operate from England selling their product only to people in other countries, primarily the United States, Africa, and Asia.
It is difficult to prove fraud. These operations immunize themselves from prosecution is by constantly acknowledging that they are diploma mills. These organizations do not obtain money under false pretenses by misleading “students” about what they are getting. The buyer knows they had done no real work. Often they know they had purchased a fraudulent product. The school usually admits up front that they are unaccredited. They give you everything promised.
The people buying these degrees are buying them for a purpose, either to get a promotion, change jobs, or to change careers. In many cases, they knowingly purchased the product, even though it was bogus.
It is very risky to buy a fake degree or to claim to have a degree that you have not earned. Eventually, the truth comes out resulting in dire consequences. Consumers with bogus degrees are liable to find themselves embarrassed professionally or even out of a job or, at worst, facing criminal charges. In Oregon, using a degree from a college the state doesn’t recognize to land a job or gain a promotion is illegal.
How To Protect Yourself
If you have any doubts about an online program:
- Don’t limit your research to classified ads or survey the Web in search of the right course or program
- See if the online school is accredited and by whom. Check to see if the accrediting agency is officially sanctioned. Lists are available from several accrediting organizations.
- Check with licensing boards and professional associations to see if the program delivers an acceptable level of training.
- Call or write the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general’s office to make sure the school is operating legally in a state and to see if anyone has filed a complaint.
- Find out if the school is connected to an established, reputable parent company
- If you intend to transfer any online credits earned to another college or university, early on check with that institution to see if they accept those credits.
- Ask about the faculty? Who teaches the courses? What degrees do they have? What is their area of expertise?
- Refer to the published guides of online, correspondence and other distance delivered courses.