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‘Diploma Mill’ Issue Roils Pay Debate in New Jersey

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 05, 2008 6 min read
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High salaries and generous benefits for New Jersey superintendents and other administrators have drawn sharp criticism and calls to action from state lawmakers, including a backlash against compensation driven by degrees from so-called “diploma mills.”

In the highest-profile case, the superintendent and two other administrators in the 12,000-student, six-school Freehold Regional High School District received $2,900 in tuition reimbursement and $2,500 in annual salary raises after obtaining doctoral degrees from an unaccredited online school.

That institution, Breyer State University, is now prohibited from doing business in Alabama and Idaho for not meeting state accreditation standards. The online institution has a Los Angeles address and had not responded as of press time last week to a request for comment.

The Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education accused Breyer State and 17 other schools that it barred of “operating apparent diploma mills and taking shameful advantage of hundreds of unsuspecting students.”

The issue of suspect credentials for both teachers and administrators has cropped up in several states.

In West Middlesex, Pa., a school board has tabled giving money to teachers who took classes through Canyon College, an online school with ties to Breyer State’s founders. Canyon is not accredited in Pennsylvania. Similar scenarios involving other institutions have arisen in Florida and Georgia.

“That’s clearly a misuse of public funds. Using public funds to acquire a diploma mill degree—certainly the taxpayers had something else in mind,” said Alan L. Contreras, the top administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization and a national expert on diploma mills.

Sensitive Issue

In New Jersey, the controversy has resulted in lawsuits, embarrassment, and tightened state regulations.

School administrators’ compensation already was a touchy issue, after it was revealed earlier this year that one small-town superintendent would receive a payout worth more than $700,000 upon retirement. (“Jumbo Payout Gets Fierce N.J. Backlash,” June 11, 2008.)

The Breyer State coursework in the Freehold high school district was paid for in 2004 and completed over the next three years. It came to light when the state education department investigated this summer based on a complaint submitted to the department and New Jersey’s attorney general.

In the investigative report completed by the education department, district Superintendent H. James Wasser said he had been under the impression that Breyer State was licensed and accredited.

A spokeswoman for the Freehold district said last week that Mr. Wasser was busy opening schools for the new academic year and was unavailable for comment.

In its report, the New Jersey education department said that “there is no sustainable evidence to support a conclusion that any of the three individuals possessed the prerequisite intent to deceive when they obtained the degrees.”

But George Gollin, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor and member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s board of directors, said the lower standards of a school like Breyer should be a dead giveaway. The school’s license in Alabama was revoked, in part, because it granted honorary doctorates based on life experience and because most of Breyer’s faculty members do not hold degrees from accredited institutions.

“It’s impossible for me to know how anyone who is anything but naive and with no contact with higher education would think the credit for ‘life experience’ [indicates] anything but a bogus operation,” he said.

The state’s report on Freehold suggested—but did not require—that the school district give financial benefits only if the degrees were earned from a state-approved institution.

State Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy last week sent all New Jersey school districts guidelines on how to tell if a private institution might be a diploma mill.

New Regulations

And in new regulations to be issued later this month, the state education department will require that in future contracts, reimbursement or salary increases be given only for work done at higher education institutions approved under the state’s accrediting standards.

Degrees from unaccredited institutions have never been allowed for use in getting a state teaching or administrative credential in New Jersey. Those who received credentials from such an institution “probably didn’t do the rigorous coursework one would expect from an advanced degree,” according to Ms. Davy.

State Senate President Richard J. Codey has called for a statewide investigation of administrative salaries to uncover other benefits gained with unaccredited degrees. He plans to introduce legislation that would bar districts from reimbursing tuition or paying raises to any employee for degrees or courses from unaccredited institutions.

But while some have accused Ms. Davy of not doing enough, others believe she has gone too far. The New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials have filed lawsuits arguing that Ms. Davy exceeded her authority in issuing new regulations that limit the type of benefits school districts can offer administrators.

The rules are aimed, for example, at preventing taxpayers from having to pay twice for pension benefits. In some instances, superintendents were receiving state contributions to their 403(b) retirement plans in addition to the state pensions to which they were entitled.

“We have a very generous state pension plan in New Jersey,” Ms. Davy said. “We believe that the pension is intended to provide that money in the future in retirement, and we shouldn’t have annuities on the side. If the individual wants to contribute on the side out of their own salary, no problem. We don’t feel it should be part of the contract.”

Some superintendents also were being reimbursed for medical co-payments, and others were being given monthly allowances for cleaning their clothing.

Richard G. Bozza, the executive director of the 1,450-member school administrators’ association, said the group filed suit in August in the U.S. District Court in Trenton because it believes some of the rules are unconstitutional and others are too vague.

“None of us are opposed to looking at these issues,” he said. “I think a responsible measure would be to look at all workers in New Jersey who are on a public payroll if we are serious about this.”

Superintendent Shortage

Mr. Bozza said a shortage of well-qualified superintendents nationwide has placed a high value on talented leaders. And a study his group commissioned by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research shows that the salaries of New Jersey school administrators are below the average for peers in the region, when cost of living is factored in.

“Well-qualified people have their picks of places to go. Certainly compensation is going to be a factor in where they go,” Mr. Bozza said. “I think we have to provide means to say what is appropriate compensation.”

Ms. Davy said the aim is to force more transparency and accountability into the system, so taxpayers know exactly what they are paying for.

“I’ve spoken very clearly about the fact that superintendents, like all other educators, need to be paid and compensated fairly for the challenges of the job,” she said. “We are certainly not saying you can’t receive a fair wage. We had some instances where there were what you would call perks in these contracts.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Diploma Mill’ Issue Roils Pay Debate in New Jersey

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