The U.S. Department of Education has launched an online database that lists nationally accredited colleges and universities to help expose—by their omission—companies that offer bogus or substandard academic degrees via the Internet.
“This Web site … is an important tool to combat the growing industry of diploma mills that scam unsuspecting consumers and employers by offering fraudulent degrees,” said Sally L. Stroup, the department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education, in a statement accompanying the launch of the database.
So-called diploma or degree mills sell degrees and certificates over the Internet without requiring buyers to do much more than pay a fee. They usually find customers by flooding the Internet with e-mail messages justifying their speedy provision of degrees based on applicants’ life experiences. Their Web sites entice visitors with testimonials, claims of accreditation by unlikely foreign governments, and images of ivy-clad buildings.
Diploma mills attracted federal scrutiny in 2003 and 2004, amid some well-publicized discoveries of individuals in responsible positions who were found to be using bogus academic degrees.
Last year, for instance, 11 Georgia educators were stripped of their teaching licenses after having used bogus degrees to qualify for raises paid by the state. (“Educators’ Degrees Earned on Internet Raise Fraud Issues,” May 5, 2004.) And an investigation by the congressional watchdog agency now known as the Government Accountability Office identified federal employees in eight agencies, including the Education Department, who had obtained degrees from alleged diploma mills, some at government expense.
The new Web site allows anyone to search among 6,900 accredited U.S. colleges and universities by name, geographic region or state, accrediting agency, and type of institution. However, as a filter, the tool is not perfect, because some legitimate institutions do not seek accreditation, for religious, philosophical, or financial reasons.
Other resources are available to help ferret out bogus degrees. The Federal Trade Commission released an online bulletin last week titled “Avoid Fake-Degree Burns by Researching Academic Credentials.” It cautions employers to look at job applications for tell-tale signs of bogus degrees, including degrees out of sequence, degrees earned in a very short time or in the same year, and degrees from schools in locations far from the applicant’s job or home.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as New Web Site Aims to Help Prevent Use of ‘Diploma Mills’