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Fraud Factories

Fake institutions and diploma mills that churn out bogus degrees could jeopardize your human resource strategy.

Opinions vary widely about the challenges and threats employers face from employees and job applicants who have used diploma mills to buy bogus college degrees or education certificates. Most human resource professionals acknowledge that degree or diploma mills pose challenges for employers, but most quickly add that it is not a problem within their organizations.

“Of course they’re going to say that they thoroughly check the backgrounds and qualifications of employees and job applicants,” says Alan Contreras, administrator for the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization.

Contreras firmly believes that degree mills present a much bigger problem than employers are aware of and acknowledge. He estimates that nearly 700 diploma mill companies or organizations exist in the United States and as many as 3,000 mills are in operation worldwide.

“All these degree mills issue thousands of bogus degrees every year,” he says. “So there are tens of thousands of people out there who are using these bogus degrees.”

Online Proliferation

Diploma mills proliferated with the growth of the World Wide Web. Prior to the mid-1990s, when the number of web sites and access to the Internet exploded, degree mills numbered in the dozens. The relative ease of online access to diploma mills plus explosive growth of businesses and educational institutions offering online learning programs has greatly increased opportunities for abuse.

“The number of college and graduate school courses available online can really leave you perplexed about which ones are legitimate,” says Judy Lohmar, manager of learning and development for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Little Rock.

While the proliferation of online courses, degrees and certificates might be daunting, especially to employers looking to verify that employees and applicants have legitimate degrees and certificates, resources to check authenticity are readily available.

Groups such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) in Washington, D.C., maintain lists of accredited colleges and universities. Employers may not be aware of these online lists, according to Contreras.

Lohmar says the databases come in handy when making sure an employee has attended and earned a degree from a legitimate source. The process of checking online can save employers thousands of dollars when reimbursing employees for tuition costs.

Creating Written Policies

Although many organizations have adopted written policies clearly specifying that only accredited schools qualify for tuition reimbursement, many have not.

Contreras estimates that fewer than one in five employers actually have a written policy that requires college degrees and educational certificates to be issued by an accredited educational institution. He suspects that the number will continue to grow as employer awareness of the problem improves.

Some employers don’t share Contreras’ opinion about the severity of the problem. “Degree mills are a problem, but they haven’t really been an issue for our organization,” says Mark Hough, senior corporate counsel for SAS Institute in Cary, N.C. “We do check college transcripts routinely, and we do tend to draw candidates who have graduated from some top universities.”

Even a degree that seems to be from a top university may come from a degree mill. Contreras identifies two types of mills—ones that issue degrees from bogus or nonexistent schools and ones that sell fake degrees from legitimate and well-known colleges.

Employers need to say upfront and in writing that they confirm all degrees by checking college transcripts, Contreras says. However, while checking transcripts at well-known and accredited schools usually will reveal whether an employee or job candidate has a fake degree, transcript reviews won’t reveal every fake credential.

Several degree mills provide official-looking transcripts and a toll-free number to confirm attendance and course completion.

“These types of setups can be quite convincing,” Contreras warns. “It’s important that employers also specify in writing that if the job requires a college degree that the degree must be from an accredited institution.”

The word “accredited” is key, Contreras says, and he suggests that employers specify the accreditations they will accept, such as schools listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation database, or listed by CHEA-approved organizations.

“We have it as part of our written policies and procedures that degrees must come from accredited schools,” says Linda Carr, PHR, director of human resources for the Road Commission for Oakland County in Beverly Hills, Mich. “We have some very strict criteria and written stipulations for all the positions which require college degrees.”

Public-Sector Challenges

The Michigan county agency that Carr works for appears to be an exception to the rule, and research has found that government agencies at all levels—local, state and federal—seem susceptible to hiring, promoting and paying tuition benefits to employees who have degrees and certificates from diploma mills.

A 2004 study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 463 federal employees had received bogus degrees from diploma mills. Several held sensitive positions that require high levels of technical skill. The GAO researchers concluded that the U.S. government had spent more than $150,000 in tuition reimbursements to employees receiving fake degrees. The GAO report went on to state that the problem could be more pervasive than research reveals.

“Our investigations revealed the relative ease with which a diploma mill can be created and bogus degrees obtained. Furthermore, the records that we obtained from schools and agencies likely understate the extent to which the federal government has paid for degrees from diploma mills and other unaccredited schools,” the authors write. “The agency data we obtained likely do not reflect the true extent to which senior-level federal employees have diploma mill degrees.”

The problem is compounded several times over within state and municipal governments with less sophisticated hiring systems, Contreras insists.

Regulating Diploma Mills

The GAO report did attract attention on Capitol Hill, and Congress has been considering legislation that would better regulate diploma mills. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008 (H.R. 4137). The bill was passed by the Senate in July and has been sent to the president.

The legislation would require the secretary of education to establish a diploma mill task force to develop guidelines for distinguishing between legitimate and fraudulent degree-granting institutions. If enacted, the legislation would require the Federal Trade Commission to develop a plan to address diploma mills and to ban unfair and deceptive acts or practices.

In typical fashion, the states have been busy enacting laws before the federal statute passes. In 2003, Oregon became one of the first states to pass a law making it illegal to use or sell bogus degrees. Anyone in Oregon who uses a false academic degree to obtain employment violates state law and can be subject to a fine and sometimes imprisonment. Seven other states followed Oregon’s lead with laws either outlawing diploma mills or limiting use of bogus degrees.

Oregon has the toughest law, and the state’s Office of Degree Authorization has developed a reputation for being a “degree mill buster.” The Oregon office did come under fire when Wyoming-based Kennedy-Western University filed suit in 2004 alleging that the Oregon state law was unconstitutional and that it violated the rights of the university’s graduates by unreasonably restricting their ability to use a lawfully obtained college degree.

The suit was settled out of court, and, as part of the settlement, the state of Oregon had to amend its diploma mill law. According to the amended statute, the use of unaccredited degrees does not violate state law as long as degree holders disclose the unaccredited status to potential employers and business associates.

The lawsuit and subsequent settlement does not dampen Contreras’ resolve to expose diploma mills and the problems they present to employers and the public.

“With more states and the federal government considering diploma mill legislation, and as awareness among employers continues to grow, the future for diploma mills doesn’t appear too bright,”

Contreras says. “We definitely aren’t there yet, though, and a lot still must be done before anyone can declare victory and we see the demise of diploma mills.”

The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Web Extras

What To Look For

Experts say clues will help you spot questionable credentials on a resume or application. Look for:

Out-of-sequence degrees. Degrees take a traditional progression—high school, followed by bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral or other advanced degrees. Consider it a red flag if an applicant claims a master’s or doctoral degree, but no bachelor’s degree—or a college degree, but no high-school or equivalency diploma.

Quickie degrees. It generally takes time to earn a college or advanced degree—three to four years for an undergraduate degree, one or two years for a master’s degree, and even longer to earn a doctorate. A degree earned in a short time, or several degrees listed for the same year, are warning signs.

Degrees from schools in locations different from the applicant’s job or home. If an applicant worked full time while attending school, check the locations of the job and the educational institution. If the applicant didn’t live where he went to school, check to see if the degree is from an accredited distance-learning institution, using the steps described under “How To Verify Academic Credentials” on page 57. If the degree is not from a legitimate, accredited distance-learning institution, it may be from a diploma mill.

Sound-alike names. Some diploma mills use names that sound or look like those of well-known colleges or universities. If the institution has a name similar to a well-known school located in a different state, check its credentials. Look for degrees from institutions with prestigious-sounding foreign names; they call for homework, too. Researching the legitimacy of foreign schools can be a challenge, but consider it a warning sign if an applicant claims a degree from a country where she never lived.

Source: Federal Trade Commission.

How To Verify

Academic Credentials

Contact the school. Most registrars will confirm dates of attendance and graduation, as well as degrees awarded and majors, upon request. If the applicant gives permission, the college may provide a certified academic transcript. If you aren’t familiar with the school or are suspicious, don’t stop your research just because someone answers your questions on the phone or responds with a letter. Some diploma mills offer verification services that send phony transcripts.

Research the school online. Check to see if the school is accredited by a recognized national agency. Accredited colleges and universities undergo rigorous review. Many diploma mills claim to be accredited, but the accreditation is from an official-sounding institution the school invents.

You can use the Internet to check a new database of accredited academic institutions posted by the U.S. Department of Education at Keep in mind that there are some legitimate institutions that have not pursued accreditation.

Check the list of recognized national and regional accrediting agencies maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at

Look at the school’s web site. But note that it’s not always easy to pick out a diploma mill based on a quick scan of its site. Some mills have slick sites and a “dot-edu” web address to suggest legitimacy. Nevertheless, the site can be a source of information. Federal officials say it may be a diploma mill if:

  • Tuition is charged on a per-degree basis, rather than per credit, course or semester.
  • There are few or unspecified degree requirements, or none at all.
  • The emphasis is on degrees for work or life experience.
  • The school is relatively new or has recently changed its name.

Tap other resources. There is no comprehensive list of diploma mills on the web because phony credentialing sources arise all the time. However, the Oregon Student Assistance Commission’s Office of Degree Authorization maintains a list of organizations it has identified as diploma mills at Another way to check up on a school is to call the registrar of a local college or university and ask if it would accept transfer credits from the school you are researching.

Source: Federal Trade Commission.


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