Federal regulators launched a two-prong attack this week on the US$200 million diploma mill industry, an industry populated with online enterprises where students can purchase a degree with minimal or no course work.
The first prong was spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which keyed up a searchable, online database of educational institutions accredited by organizations recognized by the federal government.
The Federal Trade Commission initiated the second prong: a “Facts for Business” guide to help businesses avoid hiring people with phony degrees.
“This new Web site is an important tool to combat the growing industry of diploma mills that scam unsuspecting consumers and employers by offering fraudulent degrees,” Assistant Secretary of Education Sally Stroup said in a statement.
Legislators behind a series of probes into an industry that has an estimated 200 to 250 mills in its ranks praised the DOE’s new online tool.
“I believe one of the best ways to expose diploma mills is to launch a very large public education campaign, and these tools mark the beginning of this campaign,” said Mike Castle (R-Del.), House chairman of the Education Reform Subcommittee, in a statement describing the initiative.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) added in his statement on the DOE’s action that, “By making this Web site available, parents and students will be able to navigate through a user-friendly database to find out exactly which colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions are properly accredited.”
As diploma mills move into cyberspace, their critics see them as a growing menace to the credibility of online education.
“What we’re seeing is that the Internet has provided a new medium for people to defraud customers or for people to provide the tools to defraud people,” said George D. Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a crusader against diploma mills.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s very easy for a small group of people to fake out a whole lot of consumers and do nothing but take their money and provide them with paper documents,” Gollin told TechNewsWorld.
Even though Kennedy-Western University in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is non-accredited, Director of Corporate Communications David Gering praised the new DOE online offering. “Our position always has been to support what the Department of Education is doing to ensure that the quality of higher education in this country is what taxpayers would expect,” he said.
He applauded the DOE’s “positive approach” to the diploma mill problem. “They chose to list schools that were accredited, rather than listing diploma mills,” he observed. “I think that speaks to the federal government’s interest in providing the correct kind of guidance rather than misleading the taxpayer by labeling certain non-accredited schools as diploma mills.”
Not everyone was happy with the DOE’s action, however.
According to Vicky Phillips, CEO of GetEducated.com in Essex Junction, Vermont, the DOE database gives consumers a false sense of protection. Many of the diploma mills have almost identical names to legitimate schools, she explained. So a student checking the database for the University of Berkeley, an alleged diploma mill, would find the University of California at Berkeley and believe both are the same school. “Consumers don’t look deeper,” she told TechNewsWorld.
“This may be a good bureaucratic response, but it’s way short of finding a satisfactory system for protecting consumers, if that’s what the government really intends to do,” she asserted.
The name game played by one alleged diploma mill prompted a Denver, Colorado, Jesuit school, Regis University, to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against St. Regis University in a federal district court in Spokane, Washington.
“We needed to protect our good name,” Regis University spokesperson Lee Ann Fleming told TechNewsWorld. “We’re hoping that by taking this action, we could demonstrate to our alumni, to our current students and to prospective students that we’re taking this seriously.”
“There are enough scandals out there in the media identifying St. Regis University as a diploma mill and it caused enough confusion that we thought we had to take some action,” she said.
While much of the media play surrounding the new attack on diploma mills centered on the DOE database, the FTC initiative could have a greater impact on the problem in the long run, according to Gollin.
“The primary place where work needs to be done is to make employers aware of this as a problem,” he said. “If everyone checked to see if a school was legitimate, then I think the market for these fake degrees would wither.”