Congressional hearings in Washington next week will highlight an investigation into whether high-ranking employees in nine federal agencies—including the Department of Education—have used spurious academic degrees to get their jobs or promotions.
The hearings are part of a broader effort by some members of Congress and the Education Department to warn of the harm posed by “diploma mills,” substandard or fraudulent providers of degrees that experts say have been proliferating in the United States and overseas.
Experts point out that diploma or degree mills today conduct their business online, accepting fees and assigning students credits and degrees based on information on their applications, and sometimes for minor academic tasks.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, who will chair the May 11 and 12 hearings of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said that when individuals with phony credentials assume federal positions of great responsibility, the result is eroded confidence in the federal workforce, devaluation of legitimate education, and even serious concerns about public safety.
Sen. Collins and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., initiated an inquiry by the General Accounting Office last July that was prompted by the case of Laura L. Callahan, an official at the Department of Homeland Security. Ms. Callahan listed on her résumé bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Hamilton University, an unaccredited school in Evanston, Wyo., that reportedly requires little academic work, according to Ms. Collins.
Hamilton University officials were unavailable for comment.
Ms. Callahan had been on administrative leave since June 2003. She resigned from the Department of Homeland Security in March, according to a department spokesman. The GAO’S findings, scheduled to be released at the hearings next week, also focus on whether federal employees are using federal funds to obtain bogus degrees.
Sen. Collins contends that a loophole in regulations may allow employees to use federal money to pay for coursework from diploma mills. She points out that some diploma mills advertise that federal money can be used to pay for their courses.
In another development, the Education Department is organizing a new list of accredited and other legitimate institutions of higher education in the United States. The list will allow prospective employers to check on which degrees are legitimate, including those from online institutions, said Andrea Hofelich, a staff member of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
The idea to develop a new list came out of a Washington “summit” on diploma mills that U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige convened in January.
The gathering brought together representatives of various federal agencies and officials from states—specifically, Illinois, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oregon—that have laws against the use of degrees from diploma mills.