Degrees of deception

Many government, contractor IT workers are padding resumes<@VM>Agency knew of CIO's unaccredited degrees

Diploma mill or legitimate school? Here's how to tell

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org) in Washington has a fact sheet identifying warning signs that an organization might be a diploma mill.

If the answers to most of the following questions are "yes," students and the public "should take this as highly suggestive that they may be dealing with a mill. In this circumstance, students and the public may be best served by looking for alternatives for higher education and quality assurance," the council said.


  • Can degrees be purchased?

  • Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?

  • Is there a claim of accreditation from a questionable accrediting organization?

  • Does the operation lack state or federal licensure or authority to operate?

  • Is little, if any, attendance required?

  • Are few assignments required for students to earn credits?

  • Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?

  • Are degrees available based solely on experience or resume review?

  • Are there few requirements for graduation?

  • Does the operation charge very high fees as compared with average fees charged by higher education institutions?

  • Is the fee so low that it does not appear to be related to the cost of providing legitimate education?

  • Does the operation fail to provide any information about a campus, business location or address and relies, for example, on a post office box?

  • Does the operation fail to provide a list of its faculty and their qualifications?

  • Does the operation have a name similar to other well-known colleges and universities?

  • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?


Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate how federal agencies ensure that employees have earned degrees from accredited institutions. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, asked the GAO June 27 to investigate the use of diploma mill degrees.

At California Coast University in Santa Ana, Calif., prospective students can have undergraduate courses waived by applying credit for "life-learning."

The school's Web site does not provide a list of faculty members, and the school does not require on-campus or classroom attendance. A bachelor of science degree in business administration or management costs $3,575 for U.S. residents, and a dual master's and doctoral degree in these programs or in engineering costs $4,975.

CCU is an unaccredited school, not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and not accredited by any federally recognized accreditation board. The Student Assistance Commission of Oregon includes CCU on a list of "diploma mills." Oregon law makes it a Class B misdemeanor for its residents to use a degree from a school on this list.

Despite this, CCU boasts that more than two dozen federal offices -- including the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, departments of Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Justice, Treasury and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Postal Service -- have all paid for or reimbursed employees for tuition costs.

The school also claims that several agencies, such as the Army, Air Force and Justice Department, have given pay raises or promotions to employees after they received a CCU degree.

One of those who has received degrees from CCU is Dennis Van Langen, director of the Field Support Division of the Information Management Division in the Pentagon. Van Langen, who holds a master's degree and a doctorate in management from CCU, said the degrees have helped him advance professionally.

"I think it has been helpful in terms of the number of areas I can work in, the number of positions I qualify for and the number and variety of projects I can become involved in," he said.

Van Langen said he was able to waive "two or three" courses as a result of his classwork at other institutions, and in an internal Pentagon newsletter, he said he traveled to CCU's headquarters in Santa Ana to defend his doctoral dissertation.

"People who want to tilt at windmills make this a big issue," he said.

The use of degrees from unaccredited schools has garnered significant attention in recent weeks following reports by Washington Technology and its sister publication, Government Computer News, that Laura Callahan, senior director in the Homeland Security Chief Information Officer's Office, had obtained her bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from Hamilton University.

The university, an unaccredited school in Evanston, Wyo., requires scant academic work. Homeland Security placed Callahan on administrative leave June 5 and is investigating her credentials.

The Office of Personnel Management only recognizes degrees from accredited universities, and does not allow federal employees to obtain promotions or reimbursement for education based on degrees from diploma mills.

However, an investigation by the two publications has uncovered evidence suggesting that federal employees use unaccredited schools to obtain academic credentials more often than many in government or industry realize. The publications turned up more than 50 government and contractor information technology workers claiming degrees from unaccredited schools.

News of Callahan's degrees have prompted two separate congressional inquiries.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, asked has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate how federal agencies ensure that employees have earned degrees from accredited institutions when those employees receive promotions based on their academic credentials.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, asked the GAO June 27 to investigate the use of diploma mill degrees and credentials by federal employees, including whether the federal government has paid for or reimbursed tuition costs for these degrees.

"The investigation will follow up on work that the GAO has previously completed on diploma mills at my request, and reflects the need to determine the prevalence of this practice and whether steps need to be taken to shut down these 'coin-operated colleges,'" Collins said.

EDUCATION INFLATION

While there is no single definition of a diploma mill, the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation has published warning signs to help students screen schools.

Diploma mills are not accredited by federally recognized regional accrediting organizations. Some simply provide a paper degree in exchange for cash. Other diploma mills go through the motions of requiring course work and academic activities.

However, such schools usually allow their clients to gain academic credit by furnishing evidence of work or life experience -- evidence that can be quite minimal -- relevant to the subjects covered.

Both the Education Department and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintain electronic databases of accredited institutions against which a school can be checked. Oregon maintains a list of schools it defines as diploma mills.

Most diploma mills claim to be accredited by organizations that are themselves not genuine, an additional form of deceptive business known as an accreditation mill.

The joint investigation by Washington Technology and Government Computer News, which uncovered more than 50 IT professionals claiming degrees from unaccredited schools, found workers with a total of 22 bachelor's degrees, 19 master's degrees and 13 doctorates from 16 institutions.

Some of these schools advise prospective students their employers may reimburse them for tuition.

The degrees include a dozen in some form of computer science or management information systems, six in aspects of engineering, and 14 in business administration, as well as others in safety engineering, public health, psychology, criminal justice and public administration. Several individuals held more than one degree from an unaccredited school.

At least 11 people also said they hold some type of security clearance.

Among the professionals with credentials from unaccredited programs are presidential appointees, senior executives and military officers, including:

  • Jimmy Shirl Parker, CIO of the Federal Technology Service in the General Services Administration (see related story, "Agency knew of CIO's unaccredited degree")

  • A board member of the National Science Foundation;

  • A contract IT professional in the Office of Naval Intelligence;

  • A Transportation Security Administration official responsible for screening applicants for employment as airline baggage inspectors;

  • A NASA contract employee responsible for safety engineering;

  • A biostatistician in a military medical organization;

  • A former director of a Pentagon agency;

  • An IT manager with the Federal Reserve Board.

Reporters located these and other individuals by comparing the academic credentials they have claimed against a list of diploma mills maintained by Oregon's Student Assistance Commission's Degree Authorization Office.

CONGRESS INVESTIGATES

In January 2001, undercover investigators with the GAO went about setting up a fake British university, including Web sites, telephone numbers, a phony course catalog and false financial statements. Based on this and other information, the fictitious school was able to sign up as a participating school in the Department of Education's Federal Family Education Loan Program.

For almost 18 months, GAO investigators carried out the ruse, going so far as to create three nonexistent students who applied for student loans through the Education Department loan program. Two of three lenders approved loans totaling $55,000.

This is just one of two investigations the GAO undertook at the request of Sen. Collins in the last two years. In the other, conducted throughout 2002, investigators demonstrated the ease with which they could purchase credentials claiming advanced degrees from diploma mills over the Internet.

On the House side of Capitol Hill, Davis has been pressing for more information about the Callahan matter. According to Davis, OPM told the Labor Department that Callahan had received academic degrees from an alleged diploma mill, but the department took no action.

Davis has asked for a full report from Clark Kent Ervin, Homeland Security inspector general, who is investigating the issue.

In a separate request to GAO, Davis also asked the auditing agency to investigate how federal agencies ensure employees who have been promoted on the strength of their educational credentials actually earned their degrees from legitimate institutions, referring to reports that Callahan "may have advanced her career using credentials obtained from a so-called diploma mill that awards advanced degrees for little or no work."

Collins, who has asked the GAO to examine the extent to which federal employees use credentials from diploma mills, and Davis are waiting to see what these additional investigations reveal before deciding on their next steps.

COST OF INFLATION

"Nobody can be satisfied with having a federal employee who is selected on the basis of having a degree that is, in fact, not a real degree," said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. "One of the things to recognize here is that the federal government requires, when a degree is a requirement of a job, that the degree be from an accredited institution."

Stier said the issue of inflated credentials should be studied carefully before any further regulatory or legislative measures are adopted to control the problem.

"It may just require additional diligence by agencies that do background checks or additional education of managers," he said.

Steve Nelson, director of the office of policy and evaluation for the Merit Systems Protection Board, oversees a unit that conducts studies of federal personnel practices.

Claiming to have a degree from an unaccredited school "is lying on your application," Nelson said. "It is like saying you have been working for IBM whereas in fact you have been working for Integrated Ballistic Missile."

Doing so could be grounds for a personnel action that would be taken on a case-by-case basis, Nelson said, and could include "a small form of discipline or removal."

Education may not be the best method of determining if an applicant is qualified for a federal job, Nelson said. "Competencies are a better way to determine qualifications," he said.

He added that OPM qualification guidelines, which require that any degrees claimed by an applicant be obtained from an accredited institution, do provide for applicants to substitute experience for education.

Nelson thought additional regulation or legislation in this area is not needed; credential inflation "is not a frequent problem," he said.

However, Tom Goodwin, president of Goodwin & Co., a management recruiting firm in Washington, said he has seen a significant number of people try to bolster their resumes with degrees from unaccredited programs.

"I have no idea how many people inflate their resumes [and] never get caught," Goodwin said. "I don't know if it's one in 10 or two in 10. I can't put a number on it, but I see it a lot. ... There are some fairly serious attempts to make one seem different than the truth."

Inflating one's credentials by using degrees from diploma mills adds all kinds of costs to employers, he said.

"It means they have to go hire somebody new. It means they put time into training the person. There's the opportunity cost. There's the credibility issue. If that kind of information gets out to [customers], it makes you look bad," Goodwin said.

Staff Writers Patience Wait and Wilson Dizard can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com and wdizard@postnewsweektech.com.
Jimmy Shirl Parker was named chief information officer for the Federal Technology Service, one part of the General Services Administration, in 2000. The position is part of the Senior Executive Service, and he holds a security clearance.

Parker came to FTS after an 11-year Army career, including an honorable discharge as a sergeant first class in 1983, 15 years with the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla., and just under two years with the Corps of Engineers, where he was information management director for the southwestern division.

While serving as senior technical director and chief of tactical data systems at Fort Hood, Texas, according to his resume, Parker received a bachelor's of science degree in management in 1989, and a master's of business administration degree in 1991. Both are from California Coast University, an unaccredited school in Santa Ana, Calif., licensed by the Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, a unit of the state's Consumer Affairs Department, not the Education Department.

In July 2001, the GSA's Inspector General's Office was notified that Parker's degrees were not from an accredited institution.

The complainant, a GSA employee passed over for the CIO job, said a high-ranking FTS official told him that Parker "had an MBA and brought a broader range of experience to the job."

But the inspector general responded to the complaint by saying "there were no degree requirements listed" among the qualifications for the CIO's position.

When asked about Parker's academic credentials in June, a GSA spokeswoman replied in writing: "Jimmy Parker was hired as [CIO] for the [FTS], a Senior Executive Service... position, based on prior job experience and high technical qualifications. The qualification requirements for the position were outlined in the vacancy announcement -- qualifications which he met. There were no prescribed education or degree requirements outlined in the vacancy announcement. Mr. Parker was selected for this position after careful review of the full breadth of his experience and background."

A GSA spokeswoman declined to make Parker available for an interview, saying, "We're simply resting on the statement."

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