Top Signs An ‘Institution’ Might be Faking It


I had the news on one morning this week, sound off, as I began my work. I glanced over at the television and across the screen scrolled a headline that took me off guard. It said, “Fake Degrees Proliferate”! By the time I could get to the television to turn on the sound, the briefing of the story was over. Nonetheless, it got me thinking.

Of course, I had heard of these so-called ‘diploma mills’ before, but I really never knew much else about them nor knew anyone who had either been swindled by or paid for his/her degree. As I began to do some research, I soon found myself filled with outrage – mostly because I have worked with so many truly dedicated higher education professionals that live and breathe student success and lifelong learning that this darker side of higher education made me feel like it gave those folks’ a bad name or somehow marred the good work that so many do in higher education – especially those so deeply involved in legitimate student learning and assessment efforts.

Motivated solely by making a profit, a diploma mill (also known as a degree mill) is an organization that awards academic degrees and diplomas with substandard or no academic study and without recognition by official educational accrediting bodies. The purchaser can then claim to hold an academic degree. These degrees are often awarded based on vaguely construed life experience. Some organizations claim accreditation by non-recognized/unapproved accrediting bodies set up for the purposes of providing a veneer of authenticity.

In recent years, unaccredited for-profit higher education institutions have specialized in enrolling foreign students and have been called sham schools. A 2002 Seattle Times article noted that some believed Wyoming had “become a haven for diploma mills.” Various schemes have been implemented to curb the proliferation of diploma mills, and a number of states have passed bills that make it illegal for an organization to confer degrees without accreditation. Oregon, New Jersey, and North Dakota have adopted tough laws that include fines and jail time for using fake degrees to gain employment. Wyoming passed stricter laws in 2006 requiring universities and colleges to either be accredited or be candidates for accreditation to operate in the state.

In 2004, a house cat named Colby Nolan was awarded an “Executive MBA” by Trinity Southern University. The cat belonged to a deputy attorney general looking into allegations of fraud by the school. The cat’s application was originally for a Bachelor of Business Administration, but due to the cat’s “qualifications” (including work experience in fast-food and as a paperboy) the school offered to upgrade the degree to an Executive MBA for an additional $100. As a result of this incident, the Pennsylvania attorney general filed suit against the school.

In February 2005, the US Department of Education launched to combat the spread of fraudulent degrees. The state of Washington passed a bill in March 2006 “prohibiting false or misleading college degrees.” The law was approved and introduced penalties of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for knowingly granting or promoting an unaccredited award. In Tennessee, a law that took effect in July 2004 made diploma mill degrees illegal. Wyoming has now passed a law requiring a post-secondary institution granting degrees to Wyoming citizens to be accredited, or to be a candidate for accreditation. (There was an exemption for religious schools.)

Despite such measures, the use of fake university degrees and other qualifications by criminals to infiltrate the business world is on the increase, according to a June 2014 article on diploma fraud. Verifications company QVS chief executive Danie Strydom says the proliferation of fake qualifications poses a real threat as the documents could be used to secure jobs to the detriment of companies.

The danger of employing fraudsters has risen exponentially with the advent of technology being used by degree mills to make their fake degrees and diplomas look exactly like the real thing,” Strydom says. The level of degree fraud is currently at 13%. It varies from degrees, diplomas and certificates that are outright frauds – some bought from overseas degree mills – to documents that have been tampered with.

What is most angering is that these organizations try to represent themselves as accredited, reputable institutions of higher education – when they are anything but. So here are some signs for which to be on the look:

1) A credit card is the only prerequisite for admission.

An Adult Swim parody “infomercial” advertising “For-Profit Online University” nailed this point with a wide-eyed student testimonial: “Enrolling was easy, because they already had my credit card information on file!” Another adds: “Technically, if you have a credit card, you’re already enrolled.”

This isn’t that far from the truth. Several years ago, successfully purchased a $499 MBA for their mascot – a pug named Chester – from Rochville University. A week after ponying up the money, they received a package that included Chester’s diploma, “two sets of college transcripts, a certificate of distinction in finance, and a certificate of membership in the student council.” His GPA was given as 3.19.

2) The expectations are low, or nonexistent.

You know what there’s a lot of in college? Homework outside of the course! If you’re not getting many assignments – i.e., the things that prove you understand the concepts presented – then it’s likely there’s no one on the other end to grade it or give you feedback.

3) You’re being recruited and coerced into confusing deals.

Because scam universities are all about the bottom line, they’ll pursue prospects at all costs. In a recent investigation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., the company that owns the Everest College brand, was revealed to have placed aggressive daily sales calls to anyone who so much as expressed curiosity about courses or financial aid, and induced non-English speakers sign enrollment forms they did not understand.

A cycle of deliberate debt is all the more pernicious given for-profit colleges’ tendency to target low-income and minority communities, a business model satirized in an immortal YouTube sketch titled “Everest College Commercial – Hood Variant.”

4) The school makes too many promises.

Not even the most prestigious schools in the nation guarantee employment for those who complete their curriculum, but a host of relative unknowns do just that. If you read the fine print, this usually means the opportunity to stay on for another few discounted classes, but in other instances, it’s just false advertising.

The good news is that courts have a history of holding for-profit colleges accountable for rosy promises made in their promotional materials. Chain cosmetology programs like Empire Beauty School (109 locations nationwide) have been routinely sued for failing to impart skills that would prepare students for an entry-level stylist job, while people who attend technical college often complain that seminars are poorly structured and skimpy on content—or simply advertisements for other classes.

5) The bona fides aren’t what they seem.  

There are countless ways for colleges to glamorize themselves in the eyes of the consumer, from names that look suspiciously similar to those of high-pedigree schools to certifications from organizations unrecognized by the U.S. government’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (at any given time there are dozens of these bodies active in the industry, many created from colleges in need of a veneer of legitimacy). While some diploma mills will tout an attentive, expert faculty, these professors may well be listed as holding bogus degrees themselves – that’s if you can even find them on the school website. Some work as reps for the group, willfully misrepresenting its motives, and the turnover is drastic, which limits accountability.

As more stringent measures are enacted to curb these organizations and the ability to purchase fraudulent degrees, I must remember that this darker side of education is just a minuscule piece of the higher education landscape. I look to the administrators and faculty at all legitimate two and four-year accredited institutions and hope that as long as we continue to strive to improve student engagement in the learning process, the future for our students will be just fine.

One final tip…do make sure the “campus” isn’t relocated every few weeks – that can really disrupt the learning process and is most certainly a red flag!