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...
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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.