Roadblock for bogus degrees

Education Department asked to keep master list of accredited schools

"[Phony degrees] may pose security and other risks by helping unqualified individuals secure sensitive positions, and that's a risk we can't afford to take." ? Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine

J. Adam Fenster

The chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has asked the Education Department to compile a master list of accredited colleges and universities, and make it available on the Web for prospective students and employers.

The request, sent Jan. 15 by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, came just hours after conclusion of a "diploma mill summit," hosted by the department. Collins asked Education Secretary Roderick Paige to consolidate lists maintained by a variety of accrediting agencies formally recognized by the department.

"Phony degrees devalue the legitimate credentials earned by millions of individuals through hard work, persistence and achievement," Collins said. "Such degrees also may pose security and other risks by helping unqualified individuals secure sensitive positions, and that's a risk we can't afford to take."

A master list of accredited colleges and universities would help protect prospective students and employers from being taken advantage of by diploma mills, unaccredited institutions that provide little or no educational value but offer an easy way to obtain academic credentials.

The issue of federal employees claiming degrees from unaccredited schools came to the forefront last June, when Washington Technology and Government Computer News discovered that a high-ranking official at the Homeland Security Department had acquired all three of her degrees, including a doctorate, from a diploma mill in Wyoming.

This was followed by revelations that dozens of federal IT professionals also included degrees from unaccredited schools on their resumes.

The Office of Personnel Management last spring issued a memorandum reminding agencies to reimburse education expenses only from accredited schools. The General Accounting Office has been investigating the problem at the request of Collins and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. Officials said GAO likely will complete its report next month.

The diploma mill summit was held Jan. 15 at Education Department offices in Washington. Federal and state officials discussed ways to coordinate efforts in dealing with fake degrees.

Officials from the Office of Personnel Management, GAO, FBI, Federal Trade Commission and Education Department met for most of the day with officials from Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois and North Dakota, the states most active in preventing the use of degrees from diploma mills.

At the summit, the idea of creating a master list of accredited schools was proposed.

"This meeting is an unprecedented and positive step toward cracking down on the widespread [use] of these fake degrees," Collins said.

The senator is considering convening a hearing early this spring, said Andrea Hofelich, a spokeswoman for Collins.

Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, hailed the meeting as a good first step.

The meeting "offered an excellent opportunity to brainstorm and delve deeper into the full range of issues and full range of potential congressional inquiry surrounding the diploma-mill issue," said David Marin, a spokesman for Davis.

"We plan to get a handle on this dilemma in the early months of 2004: the scope of the abuse, the impact on morale and performance and taxpayer-funded education programs and, most importantly, what we can do about it."

A committee staffer who attended the meeting said there was lengthy discussion about what the federal government should do about its own employees who claim degrees from unaccredited schools.

"The regulations are in place, the laws are on the books," said Michael Bopp, chief counsel for the committee. "OPM has long-standing guidelines saying that only degrees from accredited schools can be used to meet degree requirements. Regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations significantly limit agencies' ability to pay for degrees for their employees in the first place."

Summit attendees also talked about problems states were having with diploma mills and useless degrees before they implemented law to combat the problem, he said, as well as the difficulties the FBI and FTC have in enforcing laws and prosecuting diploma-mill scam artists.

"The owners are getting a lot smarter, moving overseas or, if they're here, requiring some work and giving you a lot of credit for life experiences," Bopp said. "Dipscam [an FBI investigation into diploma mills] in the 1980s was based on their making false statements about faculty credentials and accreditation. Now they've wised up, and they're not making those false statements."

That does not mean diploma mill operators can't be prosecuted, Bopp said.

"You don't need a patently false statement to bring an unfair and deceptive practices case. You can make a case by showing the institution was using [loaded] words, or claiming to be accredited but by a bogus agency, or holding itself out to be more than it is."

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com. Government Computer News Staff Writer Wilson Dizard can be reached at wdizard@postnewsweektech.com.

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