As Jim Wright sought to continue his higher education to encompass a bachelor's degree, he found some institutions willing to take life experience and distill it into credit hours that would make his learning and class time minimal. A few of these online-only institutions required little effort, major cash and often an illegal shortcut to a coveted sheepskin. He declined their advances. As the fire marshal for the state of Nevada, Wright was well aware of diploma mills, but found the topic of higher education accreditation foggy and information concerning the types and relative value often vague, even at the nation's top education establishment — the U.S. Department of Education.
Prior to Wright's current position, he was the deputy director of fire protection at the California Division of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
"When I was in Sacramento," he says, "it was becoming increasingly common to hear about a firefighter at one of the state's many departments getting a diploma from a non-accredited college. He would get into a bind for receiving educational incentive money from his department. I definitely wanted to make sure my educational pursuits were with a good program at an accredited college."
The problem of no accreditation and separating the various accrediting bodies is a potential dilemma for all fire professionals seeking a degree. Diploma mills may be easy to identify with their too-good-to-be-true sales pitches, but the various types of institutional accreditation, and the lack of guidance from the Education Department, can make choosing the right college difficult.
One fire science higher education coordinator at a major research university says that marketing professionals are leading students down a clear hallway only to surprise them at the end with a fully involved room as they seek a degree. The entry route is easy, but the job at the end is fraught with pitfalls: The years it takes to earn a degree may be wasted if the credits accumulated cannot transfer to mainstream institutions offering advanced degrees. In some cases, federal job requirements for higher education do not coincide with an institution's credentials. Financial aid may not be available. And for those seeking a spot on the roster for the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Executive Fire Officer Program, a questionable degree will make that endeavor all but impossible.
"Occasionally, a prospective student will call me and ask if their college courses will transfer to the University of Florida," says Chuck Smeby, fire and emergency services coordinator and lecturer at the University of Florida. "I ask them which college they went to for their college credits. I then look up the school on the U.S. Department of Education website, which offers a list of schools and accreditation status. In some cases, I have to advise the student that their course work will not be accepted at the university. Accreditation is somewhat confusing for many students. For example, the highest level of accreditation is called 'regional.' Many students assume that the school they are considering will have the credits accepted everywhere because it has some national accreditation and they are listed on the USDOE website. This is not true in the United States, where we have a system of six regional accrediting organizations, each with its own geographical area." He says a specific listing alone may not be adequate, as the operators of diploma mills have become sophisticated at masking their illicit operations.
In the June 28, 2008, edition of The New York Times, reporter Diana Jean Schemo writes that diploma mills account for an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 fake degrees a year. Among customers caught in a sting that targeted 350 federal employees and 14 New York City firefighters. The firefighters purchased degrees from a school lacking accreditation to obtain raises and promotions. When caught, they had to pay fines totaling $135,000.
On the West Coast, a Sacramento, CA, grand jury criticized city fire leaders for poor oversight when it allowed 16 firefighters to use degrees purchased from diploma mills to receive educational wage adjustments that cost the city $50,000, according to a July 9, 2009, article in The Sacramento Bee.
The California grand jury provided this impression of a diploma mill: "Because the Internet is an open environment, many educational providers have questionable resources or qualifications. These so-called diploma mills require very little effort to complete a degree and provide credits that are often not transferable to legitimate institutions." The degrees in question were from universities that allegedly lacked accreditation. Sacramento has since tightened its standards for the wage incentive, but the damage in public perception could far exceed the initial $50,000 price tag. The two-year newspaper investigation into the use of these tainted degrees for firefighter enrichment has drawn dozens of negative comments from local citizens. This comes at a time when high unemployment and shrinking public budgets have jaded the public's perception of firefighter salary and retirement outlays.
But the problem is more pervasive than what these local incidents indicate, even potentially weakening our national security, as a Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey found. When GAO looked at a mere 2% of federal employees in 2004, it uncovered 463 degrees — about half of which belonged to those working in the Defense Department — were bought from three diploma mills. Underscoring the problem, the department's then-deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness reportedly purchased a master's degree from a university that was not accredited.
The Education Department website offers a list of post-secondary institutions that meet these requirements: "Each of the post-secondary educational institutions and programs contained within the database is, or was, accredited by an accrediting agency or state approval agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a "reliable authority as to the quality of post-secondary education" within the meaning of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended." The database and the Education Department's apparent inability to steer prospective degree-seekers in a definite direction includes this caveat: "The database does not include a number of post-secondary educational institutions and programs that elect not to seek accreditation but nevertheless may provide a quality post-secondary education."
Another valuable source for verifying the credentials of a college or university is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), says George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He is a board member of the organization, which contends it is "a national advocate…for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation…" Among other pursuits, Gollin has participated in investigating diploma mills, and has a website with valuable links to resources on diploma mills. He believes their rise in recent years has coincided with the Internet boom. "It's hard to know how many diploma mills exist or any growth trends," he says, "because they are generally criminal organizations that do not share their lists."
Gollin says finding the legitimacy of an institution is easy, if you know where to look. He likens it to checking if a doctor is licensed in a particular state to practice medicine. "You go to the state's website and see if the doctor is listed. It takes only a few minutes, but it's something I know I don't think about doing." He explains that the difference in accrediting bodies might be less clear. "There has been the notion that regional accreditation is the gold standard," but much depends on the individual program an institution has to offer. "Regional accreditation is generally more acceptable than others."
Regional vs. National Accreditation
According to Elizabeth Kraus, co-founder of website Myusearch.com, "Most students don't even think to ask whether their school is regionally or nationally accredited, but this can be a huge mistake. I think there is a severe lack of education concerning accreditation…and most students don't find out about it until it is too late. Intuitively, you would think that nationally accredited programs provide more than regionally accredited programs; however, this isn't necessarily the case. Both accreditations have their ups and downs and both are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Most traditional schools (Big Ten, Pac-10, etc.) are actually regionally, not nationally, accredited. This is because regional accrediting agencies started as leagues of traditional colleges, and national accrediting agencies started as associations of institutions that served schools that weren't originally colleges or universities," her website points out.
Kraus advises potential students to look at five implications of accreditation:
- Will your credits transfer? Nationally accredited institutions are highly likely to accept credits from regionally accredited institutions, but regionally accredited schools do not accept credits from nationally accredited institutions.
- Do you plan to pursue graduate school? Again, regionally accredited schools will not accept your undergraduate degree from a nationally recognized school.
- Is your budget an issue? Perhaps one of the better applications of "you get what you pay for," nationally accredited schools usually are less expensive than their regional brethren.
- What is your target employer? A small fire department is unlikely to ask or care about regional or national accreditation; a large metropolitan department may.
- Are you seeking personal fulfillment or career advancement? If your plan is to gain a degree, then a national school offers no problems. If you decide to put your credentials out for scrutiny as a future chief, maybe a regional school is best.
Other higher education advisors offer a more hierarchical approach to the merits of accreditation bodies, listing the most-to-least valuable. According to Jason D. Baker, writing about the relative merits of accreditation for his site, Baker's Guide to Christian Distance Education, an organization that has been offering online higher education advice since 1997, "The simple answer is that regional accreditation is the most preferred form of accreditation — it is the most recognized and accepted type of accreditation and would be considered the gold standard for accreditation. In fact, many colleges and universities only recognize regional accreditation when considering transfer credits and admissions. In lieu of (or sometimes in addition to) regional accreditation, an organization might seek accreditation from one of…(the) national agencies," he says. "In that case, I would offer the following subjective ranking of accreditation status presuming that the institution only has one type of accreditation":
- Regional accreditation — Undergraduate or graduate
- Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) — Undergraduate; or Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) — Graduate
- Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) — Undergraduate or graduate
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) — Undergraduate or graduate
Arguably, one of the best ways to begin screening potential colleges is when you first see an advertisement or receive an e-mail. Sometimes, the obscured details in the fine print or lack of information are keys to what an institution has to offer.
"Institutions that do not post detailed faculty information on their websites should be suspect," Smeby says. "When requesting information, ask for background and education of faculty." He says that the real test of a quality education, which happens after the fact, is how it serves recipients in the profession. "If you take a job as a fire chief and don't have the tools that a good education will provide, you probably won't be very successful."
The experts agree: stay away from programs like those that Nevada's Wright found too easy to be of educational value. "If the program looks too good to be true," Gollin reiterates, "well then, it probably is."
PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is on the faculty at the University of Florida and an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at email@example.com.