Law & Courts

As Diploma-Fraud Bill Advances, Operators Admit to Online Scam

By Andrew Trotter — April 04, 2008 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Three Washington state residents have admitted to selling thousands of bogus academic degrees through scores of phony online universities, while raking in millions of dollars from customers.

In plea agreements filed late last month in the U.S. District Court in Spokane, Dixie E. Randock, her husband Steven K. Randock Sr., and her daughter Heidi K. Lorhan admitted to having used Web sites and sold degrees in fields that included education, medicine, and nuclear engineering to customers from the United States and other countries from 1999 to 2005. The three pleaded guilty to federal criminal fraud charges.

In 2003, several Georgia teachers and administrators used degrees purchased from one of the bogus online schools, “St. Regis University,” to qualify for state pay raises.

State officials accepted the credentials from the phony university, which was purportedly in Liberia, because a Florida-based credential-evaluation firm vouched for their validity. (“Educators’ Degrees Earned On Internet Raise Fraud Issues,” May 5, 2004.)

Last fall, several other participants in the scheme also pleaded guilty to fraud and other criminal charges. They include charges related to bribery of officials from the government of Liberia, which for a time listed St. Regis University and other entities created by the group as accredited institutions. One other alleged participant reportedly is in plea negotiations with prosecutors.

Risk and Awareness

Alarms about the dangers of global trafficking in bogus academic credentials have been raised by members of the U.S. academic community, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Government Accountability Office, and members of the U.S. Congress.

Only nine states broadly outlaw or restrict the use of unaccredited academic credentials in applying for a raise or a job; an additional two states have more-narrow protections against the use of bogus degrees, according to Alan L. Contreras, the administrator of Oregon’s office of degree authorization.

U.S. Senate hearings in 2004 focused on federal employees who bought credentials from “diploma mills”—sometimes with public money—to win raises and promotions in government jobs.

Federal legislation reining in online diploma mills is part of a major higher education reauthorization bill that the House of Representatives passed earlier this year. The bill is currently being considered by a House-Senate conference committee, along with a version passed by the Senate that does not address diploma mills.

The bill, H.R. 4137, for the first time provides a legal definition of a diploma mill, while instructing the U.S. secretary of education to establish lists of legitimate accrediting agencies, colleges and universities, and equivalent overseas institutions. The bill would establish a “diploma mill task force” to develop guidelines to distinguish between legitimate and bogus degree-granting institutions and legislation to address fraudulent degrees. The bill also directs the Federal Trade Commission to designate the offering or issuing of a bogus degree as “an unfair and deceptive act or practice.”

Bill a ‘Good Start’

George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has crusaded against online diploma mills for years, says the House legislation, which was originally developed by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is “a really good start.”

He estimates that the Randocks’ operation, at its height, sold between 2,000 and 3,000 degrees per year. According to the plea agreement, “the cost of a high school diploma was $350-$400, and an undergraduate or graduate ‘degree’ was $500-$1,200.”

Of the online diploma mills in the early 2000s, Mr. Gollin said, theirs was the most “sophisticated in presentation” on the Web, though “it wasn’t the biggest in terms of marketing.”

Still, said Mr. Gollin, who currently is a member of the board of directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, based in Washington, “I think very roughly, U.S.-based diploma-mill operators are selling between 100,000 and 200,000 degrees yearly.”

In K-12 education, bogus credentials seem to be most prevalent among nonclassroom school employees who are seeking degrees to obtain promotions or higher pay grades, rather than teachers, Mr. Gollin said.

Online diploma mills “are easy to create, easy to move,” said Judith S. Eaton, the executive director of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, which oversees domestic accreditation of colleges and universities. Despite a dearth of reliable data on the extent of the problem, Ms. Eaton called it “a cause for concern worldwide—both in the import and export of degrees.”

In fields such as engineering or medicine, she noted, allowing people to gain positions of responsibility with bogus degrees could have life-threatening consequences.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as As Diploma-Fraud Bill Advances, Operators Admit to Online Scam

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts K-12 Groups Back Racial Diversity as Supreme Court Schedules Affirmative Action Arguments
Teachers' unions and school administrator groups ask the court to uphold the consideration of race to achieve a diverse student body.
5 min read
In this June 8, 2021 photo, with dark clouds overhead, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court in October will hear arguments in a pair of cases about the consideration of race in college admissions.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts In a Chat, Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices Talk Civics, Media Literacy
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civics education in a recorded interview presented by the Ronald Reagan Institute.
3 min read
Civics Justices 07292022 172183035
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Conservative Parent Group Sues School District Over Curriculum That Discusses Race and Gender
The lawsuit, among the first to cite a state law curbing discussions of those topics, could have broad implications for school districts.
9 min read
Image of a pending lawsuit.
gesrey/iStock/Getty
Law & Courts Appeals Court Revives Student's Free Speech Suit Over Antisemitic Social Media Post
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reinstated a case involving an off-campus post referring to the extermination of Jews.
3 min read
Image of a gavel
iStock/Getty