Detecting Diploma Mills

In May, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on diploma mills, singling out several institutions that had committed particularly egregious fraud or had marketed themselves to federal employees.

The hearing, however, brought to light the problem of actually identifying diploma mills, or schools that essentially sell degrees in exchange for little or no coursework. There are some institutions that are, indisputably, fraudulent. In 2001, when the committee began investigating diploma mills, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, purchased a B.S. in biology and a master’s degree in medical technology. She completed no coursework, but bought the premium edition, which contained a 3.8 grade point average.

These diplomas, which Collins displayed at the June hearings, were clearly bogus.

Some readers have contacted Government Executive, however, to ask if a particular school is a diploma mill. One particularly irate reader wrote to complain that his school, Kennedy-Western University, was unfairly depicted as a diploma mill during the committee’s hearings.

At those hearings, investigators gave several general tips on how to recognize a diploma mill.

• If the institution promises large amounts of school credit for life or work experience, be wary. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conducted a survey of 1,100 accredited schools, and only 6 percent offered any master’s degree credit for life experience. Experts at the hearings said that reputable schools that choose to accept non-academic experience will still not offer a large amount of credit.

Legitimate schools also will often require a student to take a test on the relevant material to receive credit for work experience. An investigator for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee applied to Kennedy-Western as part of the probe and received 43 percent of the credit needed for her degree because of previous work experience.

• Diploma mills often will tell students they can earn a degree in a remarkably short amount of time. Earning an academic degree requires an investment of time and effort – if the time needed to graduate seems too good to be true, it probably is.

• Accreditation. Some small or religious schools choose not to seek accreditation for legitimate purposes, according to Sally Stroup, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department. For the majority of schools, however, accreditation is a must, according to witnesses. Representatives for Kennedy-Western, which is not accredited, said the school’s Wyoming license is sufficient. David Gering, a school spokesman, said accreditation would require Kennedy-Western to alter their school’s structure.

“We have thought long and hard about it, and we have decided that is not a model that we are willing to pursue,” Gering said. “That is what we chose to be, an unaccredited university … there are a lot of people who want the kind of education we provide.”

When asked about Kennedy-Western’s claims, however, a spokeswoman at the Wyoming Department of Education said the state’s licensing procedure was never intended to replace the accreditation process. Legitimate schools are expected to seek accreditation, said Deb Hinckley.

The Education Department is expected to produce a directory of accredited schools by the end of 2004, although officials are still unsure how they will make that list available to the public.

Windfall Elimination

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security is reviewing legislation that reduces and, in some cases, eliminates Social Security benefits for federal retirees, according to the National Treasury Employees Union.

The Windfall Elimination Provision (http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10045.html), enacted in 1983, reduces Social Security benefits for people who spent most of their careers working for the government and part of their careers working in a job covered by Social Security. The provision affects federal employees enrolled in the Civil Service Retirement System.

New legislation, the Public Servant Retirement Protection Act (H.R. 4391), would apply a new benefit calculation that would take the place of the WEP. There are four other bills pending that would repeal or modify the law.

According to NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley, the measure plays “havoc” on the retirement plans of many federal employees.

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