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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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."