Published Online:

U.S. Estimates Thousands Buy 'Degrees' From Diploma Mills

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

One year after he received his Ph.D. degree in elementary education, John Daniel Nadal received a telephone call from an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agent told Mr. Nadal that his degree, awarded by Southwestern University, was a fake.

"I thought someone had been set up to pull a joke on me. He put me in a state of shock," Mr. Nadal said. "I went through a living hell at the time. I stood up publicly in front of 200 of my colleagues and denounced the degree and the title and have not used it since."

Mr. Nadal, an elementary-school principal in Edgewater, Fla., is one of "tens of thousands of people" who are believed to have purchased bogus degrees from "several hundred diploma mills," according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is continuing its five-year-old investigation of such operations.

"Hardly a week goes by that we don't have someone call us or write us about another possibility in another state that we should take a close look at," said Robert L. Pence, head of fbi operations in North Carolina.

"We're probably dealing with tens of thousands of degree holders throughout the country and several hundred institutions. I don't know of anyone who knows exactly how many. We're out there every day trying to determine how big a problem it really is."

According to federal investigators and prosecutors, the typical "diploma mill" advertises by word-of-mouth or in publications and conducts its business through the U.S. mails and by telephone--a federal offense when the purpose is to defraud the public. In return for documentation of life and job experiences, and advance payment of "administrative fees," the "students" receive an authentic-looking degree from a university that does not exist.

No course work is required and no classes are attended, although transcripts of grades for "courses" taken are available.

The most that investigating fbi agents have ever had to do for their "degrees," Mr. Pence said, was to write "a short book report."

Degree in the Mail

To obtain his degree, Mr. Nadal said he did more. He said he submitted "a large package" of information that included a personal-history narrative, proof that he had completed 400 hours of inservice training, his military record, his Florida teaching certificate, and documentation of his formal education, which included a B.S. in elementary education and an M.S. in education, both from the State University of New York.

In addition, Mr. Nadal said he also submitted papers on his many educational "innovations" during his 27 years as a teacher, guidance counselor, and administrator. They included, he said, an open-classroom experiment that worked, a new report-card format that was adopted by the school system, a guidance department established in the late 1960's, and a set of minimal competencies that pupils were required to master before being promoted to the next grade.

In return for this documentation of his job and life experiences, and a check for $1,050, Mr. Nadal received his degree in a brown cardboard cylinder through the mail--about six months after he submitted his application. The degree, he added, was not recognized by the state department of education and did not bring him extra pay or job advancement.

Others, however, submit merely a check and resume to receive a degree, which in turn is used to obtain a job, advance their careers, and receive salary increases, according to investigators and court records.

Angelo L. Seno, a teacher at a private school in Illinois, submitted a resume, his college records, and a $585 check to obtain an M.A. degree in health sciences from American Western University, a bogus institution. With the degree, he jumped into a higher salary lane and received about $3,000 a year more in compensation.

"My boss at the time told me this was quite common," he said. "I was teaching for over 20 years when this occurred, and certainly that had to be worth credits in itself. ... I gave them my life down there. It's the only job I ever had and I put a lot of time into it."

Operators Prosecuted

Two weeks ago, four men pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud stemming from a "diploma-mill" operation that involved 22 entities and the selling of thousands of degrees in education, business, engineering, medicine, theology, and other fields. (See Education Week, May 29, 1985).

Anthony James Geruntino of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, James Robert Caffey of Springfield, Mo., Larry Edward Pfalzgraf of Pickerington, Ohio, and Donald George Minnich of Sedona, Ariz., had been charged with various counts of conspiracy to defraud by mail and telephone, and aiding and abetting fraud.

Judge Robert Potter of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division, sentenced Mr. Caffey to five years in prison. Mr. Pfalzgraf and Mr. Minnich received "one year, one day" suspended sentences, were fined $1,000, and were placed on probation. Mr. Geruntino is scheduled to be sentenced July 8.

It was the seventh prosecution in the fbi's ongoing "Dipscam" (for diploma scam) probe, and the first time that the names of degree purchasers were revealed.

Of the approximately 2,200 degree recipients whose names were entered into court records as evidence, at least 173 had purchased education-related degrees. In subsequent interviews with federal agents, it was determined that many were working in education.

Since an estimated 200 or so similar institutions may be in operation, federal agents speculate that many thousands of individuals could be holding bogus education degrees.

Lyn Gubser, former head of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, documented the problem in a 1982 article. He wrote that about 6,000 "regular doctorates in education" were awarded in 1979-80 by regionally-accredited American institutions. The same year, he added, "an estimated 1,350 quickie degrees were granted by unrecognized operations--roughly 18 percent of the total."

Educators React Harshly

Reaction in the education community to "diploma mill" operations is harsh. In interviews last week, several education officials called for a stricter policing of their ranks and blamed weak or unenforced laws, accreditation policies, and monitoring practices for the incidence of phony degrees among working educators.

In Illinois, "it's probably easiest for us to watch at the state level when people apply for a certificate to teach or serve as an administrator," said Susan Bentz, assistant superintendent in charge of the professional-relations department. The state, she noted, requires that an applicant hold a degree from an institution approved by a state department of education.

"But each district," she added, "maintains its own salary system and makes its own determination about the acceptance of a degree. Our advice is that they have a policy in place that defines what acceptable degrees are."

According to Otho Allen Ezell Jr., a special agent for the fbi, at least three states do not have any laws regulating or governing private postsecondary institutions: Wyo3ming, Utah, and Hawaii. Arizona, he added, recently passed legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1; Missouri passed legislation that takes effect this summer.

Policing the Ranks

"What I find absolutely totally infuriating and reprehensible is the fact that rather than have the profession or state educational agencies police this thing, we have to rely on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service to do our job for us," said Mr. Gubser, who is now executive director of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

"We have superintendents practicing without appropriate credits," he added, "and teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors operating without appropriate credits. If we won't police our own ranks, and must rely on social police forces to do that, that's reprehensible.''

According to Mr. Gubser, state officials should require educators to possess degrees from nationally accredited institutions--as is done in the fields of medicine and law--and union leaders should require their members to possess degrees from nationally accredited institutions.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is the only such institution recognized by the U.S. Education Department and the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation to accredit teacher-education programs.

"I think it's absolutely imperative that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association require their members to hold legitimate credentials," Mr. Gubser said. "The nea has pumped literally hundreds of thousands of dollars into supporting ncate. And yet they do not require that their own members graduate from nationally accredited programs."

Union Actions

According to Howard Carroll, an nea spokesman, the union does not "make accreditation a condition of membership, but we certainly want [our members] to have legiti-mate credentials. It would be stupid to say we're not going to let a teacher become an nea member unless they pass these rigorous standards we call for now. There would be no way to enforce it unless teachers were in control of such a board."

The nea has called for each state to establish a "professional standards board" for "determining policy and procedures for teacher certification, approval of teacher certification, approval of teacher-preparation programs, recognition of national accreditation of preparation programs, and programs designed to improve teacher education."

The union is also in favor of a "single national nongovernmental agency" for the national accreditation of all teacher-preparation institutions.

Scott Widmeyer, a spokesman for the aft, said the union has no formal policies concerning "diploma-mill" operations, although the issue has been addressed in union publications. "I guess it is something worth considering in the coming months, to warn people that these mills are operating and that they are a real racket," Mr. Widmeyer said.

Principle of Self-Regulation

According to Wayne MacLeod, vice president of the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation, postsecondary education operates under the principle of self-regulation.

"Every other country has a federal ministry of education, or some governmental agency of that sort," he said. "We don't. The Constitution prohibits federal intervention. If you don't have any kind of single authoritative body that can control [accreditation], then the problem lies with whether all the states are going to have the kinds of effective laws to do the kind of job they ought to be doing."

Since there is "no national authority that transcends the state," he added, "there emerged nongovernmental, voluntary, self-regulation. And that is a fragile process."

According to Mr. MacLeod, his organization and the U.S. Education Department are the only two enti-ties that recognize legitimate accrediting associations. Since many of the operators of "diploma mills" also establish phony accrediting associations, it is imperative that those who certify, hire, and promote employees recognize the legitimate institutions, government and association officials say.

Both the U.S. Education Department and copa recognize six regional accrediting associations that accredit an institution as a whole. They are the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

In addition, both organizations recognize ncate, one of many organizations that accredit particular programs. According to Richard C. Kunkel, executive director, ncate recognizes only 500 of the approximately 1,200 institutions that offer teacher education.

"In the course of issuing certificates, hiring people, and in some cases promoting individuals, the kind of institution they graduates not critically looked at and it should be," Mr. Kunkel said. "One of the major purposes of accreditation, at least in our field, is to assure the public of a level of quality. Consumer protection is a major concern of ours. If the hirers of people don't respect that same view, that's the way those things [the use of phony degrees] happen."

"It happens," agreed David G. Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, "because we set standards, then we don't apply them meticulously. The 'we' is a collective responsibility of the profession, the state, universities, and local school systems. When a person in a local school applies for salary increments, or demonstrates that they have undertaken advanced work, those are submitted to personnel and staff-development people in the system. What it comes down to is that the scrutiny that needs to occur at that level isn't happening."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories