Diploma mills deserve their own rankings

Last Friday, US News and World Report released the 2008 ranking of American Graduate Schools. Diploma mills — unaccredited colleges that award degrees with little or no study — were not included.

More and more Americans are buying credentials online, but faced with a staggering array of phony schools, how is the aspiring charlatan to choose?

Ranking fake schools presents an interesting challenge. Traditional metrics break down rather quickly when applied to an online facade with no faculty, no courses and no fixed address. So I explored a few dozen sites, devised some categories and ranked schools in each. Here, I present the six winners of my very own Best Diploma Mills survey.

Most Brazen: InstantDegrees.com. Many diploma mills strive to look semi-professional. Not this one. The main page is a rabbit-hole to a Wonderland of amusing content, like a scathing denunciation of academics who “frittered away years in classrooms” just to “use the same title or post-nominal letters that you can legally acquire in a matter of days for the price of a meal in a decent restaurant.” Damn. Now you tell me!

The “order now” page is free of pretense. No inventing life histories or submitting dissertations here; simply choose the degree title (bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate), subject area and your desired graduation date. InstantDegrees.com is cheap — $130 for a B.A. and $180 for a Ph.D. — but because of “legal loopholes” you cannot know which school will actually award your degree until you pay for it. Sounds mysterious, until you learn that all degrees bought here ultimately come from “Buxton University” and are mailed from Portugal.

Best Public Image Snafu: Trinity Southern University. This Texas-based two-man show made headlines in 2004 when it awarded an executive MBA to a cat. The cat’s owner, a deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania, promptly sued the school for fraud. It no longer exists.

Best Hometown Player: Suffield University. Several directories of known diploma mills list this school “operating illegally in Connecticut.” Suffield’s site offers a list of majors including Fire Science, though I suspect you can get fired with any of their degrees.

Best Actual Campus: Hamilton University. A deserted Motel 6 in Evanston, Wyo., served as the campus for this diploma mill, while an empty church across the parking lot qualified it for tax-exempt status. In 2004, 60 Minutes visited and requested a campus tour. The lone employee “locked the door and called police.” Shortly thereafter Hamilton was ruled illegal in Wyoming and is now operating as Richardson University in the Bahamas. Trivia: Hamilton is best known for awarding three degrees (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) to Homeland Security official Laura Callahan.

Most Famous Alumni: Columbia Pacific University. Dr. John Gray, best-selling author of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” has a Ph.D. from this now-defunct California-based school. Blogger Kieran Healy summed it up nicely: “Men from Mars, Women from Venus, PhDs from Uranus.”

Most Immersive Fiction: Belford, Rochville and Ashwood universities (tie). With slick (and strangely similar) Web sites, these three schools each claim accreditation by official-sounding agencies with separate Web sites. However, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted last year that these schools and their respective accrediting groups are in fact all run by the same people. They take great pains to appear legitimate: Belford University boasts deliciously phony alumni such as “Luke Jonathan, a Belford Doctorate” recently promoted to director of the nonexistent “Archbeal Solutions, Inc.” Belford at one point maintained a P.O. Box in Humble, Texas, but degrees from all three schools ship from the United Arab Emirates.

Just how hard is it to earn an “accredited Ph.D.” online? Using a pseudonym, I applied for a doctorate from Belford University. My justification for this credential was brief, stating mainly that “I have held a number of extremely prestigious posts,” “I am known as Mr. Prestige a lot of the time” and “now I need to be Dr. Prestige.” I also claimed “a brief music career which I would describe as prestigious.” Based on this paltry “life experience,” I was informed by e-mail 12 hours later that the “10-member evaluation committee” had approved my petition. My doctorate will cost $549. A 3.0 GPA is free, though for $25 more I can buy Latin honors; an extra $75 lets me backdate the degree. The package includes an official-looking diploma, concocted transcripts and a telephone verification service so employers can confirm that I am, in fact, Dr. Prestige. Match that, Yale!

If this seems harmless, consider: More than 2,000 diploma mills are currently operating, generating over $500 million in annual revenue. A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office revealed nearly 500 senior federal employees listing diploma mill degrees among their qualifications, many of whom have top-secret security clearance and remain in those jobs today. (In some cases, federal funds were used to pay diploma mill “tuition.”) The GOA concluded that the true number of civil servants with bogus degrees is likely far higher. No crackdown has yet materialized.

This tacit endorsement of purchased credentials suggests diploma mills are here to stay, and most of us will encounter their handiwork in years to come. To determine whether a degree or accrediting agency is recognized, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a searchable database.

In the meantime, here’s to phony degrees, and a new breed of college rankings.

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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