Educators’ Degrees Earned On Internet Raise Fraud Issues
Small firms known as "credential evaluators" help states and school districts detect educators who present phony or flimsy academic credentials from overseas institutions—a safeguard that is becoming more important with the growth of online education.
|Read the accompanying story, "Investigation, Hearings Target Online ‘Diploma Mills.'"||
But experts say the little-known credential-evaluation industry may itself be vulnerable to unethical operators, judging from a recent credentials scandal in Georgia.
"This is an alarm going off in a lot of [state officials’] heads— ‘Hey, if we got degrees from foreign countries, we need to not only look at the university but at the credential-evaluation service,’" said Roy Einreinhofer, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, a Mashpee, Mass.-based group that represents state professional-standards bodies and departments of education.
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission is now investigating, for possible ethics violations, a dozen educators in five districts who said they had earned advanced degrees in education from Saint Regis University, which claims to be based in Liberia. Commission officials believe the credentials presented by the 11 teachers and one principal were obtained by doing little more than describing their "life experiences" and paying $995 for a master’s degree or $1,500 for a doctorate.
But last year, the Georgia officials accepted those credentials because of letters they received from a credential evaluator, Career Consultants International, of Sunrise, Fla. CCI said the credentials were equal to those from a regionally accredited U.S. university.
The officials now suspect that CCI was not giving independent evaluations, according to the commission’s executive secretary, F.D. Toth.
‘Diploma Mills’ Go Virtual
Saint Regis is a "diploma mill," a substandard or fraudulent provider of worthless credentials, according to Alan L. Contreras, the administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, an independent state agency.
Oregon is aggressive in policing degrees from so-called diploma mills. In fact, the use of one in obtaining a job in the state is a crime.
Saint Regis is one of 200 diploma mills listed on the Oregon agency’s Web site, www.osac.state.or.us/oda. And Mr. Contreras said hundreds more diploma mills may exist in the United States and overseas.
Though the term was coined in the 1920s, diploma mills have in recent years gone virtual, as online learning has become a popular way for Americans to access legitimate graduate programs from around the world, according to Mr. Contreras and other experts.
"It’s very, very easy to market the [fake degree] now on the Internet," he said. "Also, [the Internet] makes it very practical to have an entity licensed outside the U.S.—a corporate entity that is capable of pretending to be a college."
State and district officials can reliably verify U.S.-based degrees through the college or university’s accreditation by a recognized body, or from the federal government’s list of accepted accreditation organizations, said Judith Watkins, the vice president for accreditation services of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. Based in Washington, the council represents universities and accreditation groups.
But credential-evaluation services play a key role when degrees come from overseas, where accreditation systems vary widely, Ms. Watkins said. The U.S. government doesn’t monitor overseas universities, except to check on recipients of federal education loans.
The fact that CCI did not flag Saint Regis as a problem is suspicious to Mr. Contreras.
"Any professional evaluation firm that would treat Saint Regis University as a legitimate postsecondary entity has not done its research," he said.
Mr. Toth of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission said he believed CCI was a qualified credential evaluator because of its membership in the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, a respected higher education group located in Washington.
He said he has since learned that the AACRAO membership meant little, because it was purchased with a fee without any screening.
Early this year, the Georgia commission downgraded the certification levels of the 12 educators who had received boosts in their certification ratings for their Saint Regis degrees, which had qualified them for higher pay.
The five districts have responded in various ways. Some have conducted investigations of their employees; others are awaiting the outcome of the commission investigation, probably by the commissioners’ meeting early in June, according to Mr. Toth.
He said some of the teachers have maintained that they were unwitting victims of Saint Regis.
A Ben Hill County school district principal who received a Saint Regis doctorate has shown academic papers he submitted to Saint Regis that were from uncompleted doctoral studies at another institution, said John Key, the superintendent of the 3,240-student Ben Hill district. Mr. Key said he would await the standards-commission report before deciding what steps to take.
Six of the educators, all from the 128,900-student Gwinnett County schools, paid back their raises, totaling $25,054, and resigned, according to Sloan Roach, a district spokeswoman.
Mr. Toth said the commission received letters from CCI for 11 of the 12 educators, stating that their Saint Regis degrees met the same rigor and content standards as do those from regionally accredited U.S. colleges and universities, which is the standard for Georgia’s recognition of degrees.
CCI is part of National Success Marketing Inc., based in Sunrise, Fla., and owned by William H. Danzig and Sheila Danzig.
Sheila Danzig said in an interview last month that she runs CCI under the business name of Elizabeth or Liz Ross.
Ms. Danzig described a relationship with Saint Regis that throws into question the company’s objectivity as an evaluator of credentials.
She said her company receives a fee, paid by Saint Regis, every time CCI evaluates the academic credentials of one of its students. She also said she was a paid consultant to Saint Regis as recently as two years ago.
Web sites also link Saint Regis to her company, which is involved in a variety of business enterprises and Web sites related to business consulting, direct marketing, and online higher education.
As recently as last December, CCI’s Web site, TheCareerPeople.com, stated, "Degrees from Saint Regis have been evaluated as equivalent to U.S. regionally accredited universities." That reference has since been taken off the Web site.
Saint Regis has promoted CCI on its Web site, listing the company and "Liz Ross," Ms. Danzig’s business name, as one of two recommended credential evaluators. Ms. Danzig said the online students pay the university a fee, part of which is sent to her.
The Web referral on the Saint Regis site has been removed.
Separate from her CCI business, Ms. Danzig owns two Web sites, thedegree.com and degree.com, according to the Internet’s "whois" database. Those two Web sites have recommended Saint Regis to prospective students.
As of mid-April, degree.com listed Saint Regis as "Number 3" in a ranking of 17 "top distance learning degree programs," along with accredited programs in the United States such as Walden University and the University of Phoenix. One day after a reporter mentioned the listing to Ms. Danzig, the Saint Regis recommendation was removed from the site.
It is not clear, meanwhile, whether Saint Regis University has any physical connection to Liberia.
For example, a check by officials at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, on the university’s purported street address found nothing there resembling a campus or even an office, Mr. Contreras of the Oregon degree-authorization office said.
And George Gollin, a prominent diploma mill sleuth who has analyzed the Internet headers of e-mail correspondence he and others have received from Saint Regis officials, concluded that "the day-to-day operations of correspondence, marketing, financing, and Web site maintenance are based in the U.S."
The research of Mr. Gollin, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is presented on the Oregon state government Web site.
The practice of receiving a fee from the institution whose degrees are being evaluated violates the ethical standards of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services, a trade group of 16 U.S-based credential-evaluation firms, according to Josef Silny, a NACES member based in Miami.
When informed of Ms. Danzig’s financial relationship with Saint Regis University, Mr. Silny said that such ties are against the standards of the industry.
"There’s an obvious conflict of interest," he said. "NACES members would be dropped from membership if they would do that. This would be absolutely unethical and unprofessional."
He said his company, Josef Silny & Associates Inc., only accepts fees directly from the students involved, or from an institution or employer reviewing a student’s application.
"Even though the client pays us, we don’t really work for him," Mr. Silny said. "We are trying to come up with an accurate professional evaluation, whether we make him happy or not."
CCI is not a member of NACES. The association, which has a headquarters that rotates among its members and is now based at Mr. Silny’s Miami firm, conducts screenings of its members, which must abide by a code of ethics.
CCI does, however, tout its membership in the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Dale Gough, a spokesman for the registrars’ group, said that his association’s members are primarily accredited colleges and universities, but that vendors such as CCI can join for $350 annually. "If you’re not an institution, but a vendor, there’s not any sort of membership criteria to join," he said.
But he said that because there is no screening, "vendor members are told they aren’t supposed to say, ‘We’re a member of AACRAO.’ "
Mr. Toth of the Georgia standards commission said its officials had assumed mistakenly that CCI’s membership in AACRAO implied that the company was reputable.
"We are going to have to make a decision about which credential agencies we’re going to use, and narrow our list to a very few that we have worked with for several years, and are above board," he said.
Still, Ms. Danzig of Career Consultants International defends her evaluation of Saint Regis, noting that other credential evaluators have also reviewed its degrees favorably. In fact, one of the 12 Georgia educators was evaluated by Foreign Credential Evaluations Inc., based in Roswell, Ga.
In an interview, Beth Cotter, FCE’s president, said that when she first received a request to evaluate a Saint Regis degree last fall, she was fooled by "fraudulent documentation purporting to be from the ministry of education in Liberia."
"Nobody’s ever done that to me before," she said. "I’m not the FBI or the CIA, that I’m going to expect that I need to investigate when a document is presented, and signed and sealed."
However, she became suspicious soon afterward, when she received two more credentials from Saint Regis students. "The transcripts were identical; … everybody had straight A’s, and were taking the exact same courses," Ms. Cotter said. She said she returned them to the applicants.
Mr. Toth said he has received an apology from FCE, but not CCI.
Ms. Danzig said CCI, which has two employees, made its evaluations based "primarily" on whether the Liberian government recognized Saint Regis as a valid higher education institution. "I called the Liberian Embassy in D.C. and asked if Saint Regis was recognized by the [Liberian] government," she said.
Saint Regis University is on a list of accredited higher education institutions on the official Web site of the Liberian government.
But Liberia, which is being run by an interim government under a United Nations-brokered settlement of a bloody civil war, is a "kleptocracy, in many ways," cautioned Joseph T. Siegle, an Africa expert who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. As for the country’s education system, he said, "they do not have the capacity to run a legitimate accredited university."
Officials at the Liberian Embassy in Washington were unavailable for comment.
But Ms. Danzig said she has reviewed the Liberian standards for higher education, which she called rigorous. She said she told Georgia officials that the degrees were based on experiential learning, and said she would not have issued a favorable judgment if she thought Saint Regis was a degree mill.
Mr. Silny, the NACES member, said the evaluation steps Ms. Danzig described fell far short of the industry standard, however. Even if an institution is recognized by its national government, he said, his firm tries to "see if the school is truly accredited or if it is a scam."
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 23, Issue 34, Pages 1, 18-19Published in Print: May 5, 2004, as Educators’ Degrees Earned On Internet Raise Fraud Issues