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diploma mill

A diploma mill sells college diplomas that require little or no academic work. Some people might buy a degree from a diploma mill for fun, but many buy them for profit. Having a degree, even one that was bought rather than earned by significant, standard academic work, often means a job promotion or a pay increase. Degrees from diploma mills cost cities, counties, states, and the federal government untold tax dollars in higher wages paid.

Newspaper reporter Andrew McIntosh "found that in 2005 and early 2006, 16 capital city [Sacramento, CA] firefighters applied for and got education wage incentive raises using degrees they had purchased from online diploma mills. It cost the city about $50,000."* Early in my career as a teacher at Sacramento City College, governed by the Los Rios Board of Trustees, pay incentives for degrees from unaccredited institutions were halted. I have no idea how much money the state paid to teachers for degrees they obtained for cash and little or no academic work, but it seems likely the board's action has saved the taxpayers some significant money over the past twenty-five years.

In the 1980s, the FBI's Operation "DipScam" identified about 12,000 people with bogus degrees, ranging from teachers to doctors, according to Allen Ezell, a former special agent. According to Ezell's estimate, the diploma mill business was bringing in more than $500 million annually, and the federal government had paid more than $7.5 million in tuition reimbursements. Thirty-nine diploma mills were shut down, but law enforcement seems to have lost interest in this issue. With the rise of the Internet, the number of diploma mills continues to increase. Buying and selling fake degrees and diplomas is often legal, but misrepresenting one's fake degree may constitute fraud and could ruin one's career if it is discovered that one's degree, while legitimate, is not indicative of any academic work.

Some might seek a questionable diploma to improve their chances of indicating to others that they have qualifications that they don't possess. Patrick Holford, for example, calls himself a "nutritionist" on the grounds that "the board of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION)," which is a trust that Holford founded in 1984, awarded him an honorary diploma in nutrition.* Honorary degrees from accredited institutions of higher learning are generally recognized as not indicating any special academic merit on the part of the recipient. Clearly, an honorary diploma from an institute founded by the recipient isn't worth the paper it's printed on, if indeed it is even printed on paper. (Holford has an undergraduate degree in psychology* and is the focus of Holford Watch, a blog devoted to exposing the dangers and follies of Holford-type nutritional advice.)

Using a degree from a diploma mill as a basis for misleading people into thinking that you have expertise that you don't possess can be dangerous. Nutrition and health seem to be areas where a number of people are calling themselves "Dr.," even though they do not have medical degrees or Ph.D.s from accredited institutions. Gillian McKeith, for example, has used the title of "doctor" to sell TV shows, diet books and herbal sex pills. She's been doing this for years even though her doctorate was purchased through a correspondence course from (the now-defunct) Clayton College, a non-accredited institution. According to Ben Goldacre, McKeith

is an empire, a multi-millionaire, a phenomenon, a prime-time TV celebrity, a bestselling author. She has her own range of foods and mysterious powders, she has pills to give you an erection, and her face is in every health food store in the country. Scottish Conservative politicians want her to advise the government. The Soil Association gave her a prize for educating the public. (Bad Science, Guardian),

McKeith, however, apparently knows next to nothing about science. Goldacre writes:

She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it's "high in oxygen" and will "oxygenate your blood" - but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It's dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn't absorb much oxygen in there, because you don't have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don't think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination.

Diploma mills that sell M.D. degrees seem particularly dangerous. Lord Pandit Prof. Dr. Sir Anton Jayasuriya (1930-2005) of Sri Lanka created Medicina Alternativa International in Sri Lanka and claimed to be affiliated with The Open International University [presumably to be confused with the Open University of Sri Lanka]. He sold diplomas for various fields. I have a copy of his charge list for 1962. For $3,750 USD one could buy any of the following degrees: M.D. (M.A.), M.D. (T.M.), Dr. Ac., or Ph.D. These letters stand for Doctor of Medicine (Alternativa Medicina), Doctor of Medicine (Traditional Medicine), Doctor of Acupuncture, and Doctor of Philosophy. Registration was an extra $1,000. The M.Ac.F. cost $100. The letters stand for Membership of Acupuncture Foundation. The D.Ac. cost $145; those letters do not stand for Doctor of Acupuncture, as you might think, but for "International College Diploma," whatever that might be. Freddy Dahlgren, the inventor of microacupuncture, bought his degrees from Lord Pandit. Dahlgren follows his last name with a string of letters: D.Sc., D.Ac., M.Ac.F., M.D. Jeffrey Dummett, an Australian naturopath who bought his doctorate from the Sri Lanka diploma mill was charged with manslaughter in the death of a 37-year-old kidney patient. His natural detoxification program took 11kg off his patient in 10 days and hastened the patient's death, according to the prosecutor.

Wikipedia lists over 200 unaccredited institutions,* some with swell-sounding names like Madison University, Hamilton University, James Monroe University, and Trinity Southern University (which became notorious for awarding an MBA to a cat). Several of these unaccredited institutions have the word "Bible" in their name. "In many jurisdictions religious institutions can legally offer degrees in religious subjects without government regulation,"* and many Bible colleges are accredited. However, even some accredited institutions are diploma mills. Official accrediting agencies generally assure the quality of our academic institutions, but some diploma mills form their own accreditation agencies. Wikipedia lists nearly 200 unrecognized accreditation associations.* Wikipedia also has an entry on an outfit called University Degree Program that is an unaccredited consortium of some 26 diploma mills with swell-sounding names like Glencullen University and University of Wexford. One of UDP's "graduates," Perry Beale, was convicted of defrauding hospitals in Virginia by representing himself as a medical physicist. He was turned in by Norman Fenton, another "graduate" of the University of St. Moritz. Fenton admitted buying a Master's for $500 and a cum laude Ph.D. for an extra $250.*

Some states have laws against phony diplomas, but many do not.* Even those that do, however, have not found it easy to close down diploma mills. For example, Columbia Pacific University (CPU) was shut down in 2001 by California state officials who called it a "diploma mill." It had been operating without state approval since June 1997. According to an Associated Press article in the Sacramento Bee, the state had been trying to shut down the school almost from the day it opened, saying CPU "had virtually no academic standards." Dr. John Gray (or John Gray, Ph.D.) got his right to put Dr. in front of his name (or Ph.D. after it) by getting a diploma from CPU: a doctorate in psychology. Gray claims to be a leading authority in communication and relationships between men and women. He is the author of several popular books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He is also one of the New Age darlings of public television. He is obviously well-trained, but not in the academic discipline of psychology. His ex-wife, Barbara De Angelis, also a relationship guru, got her diploma from Columbia Pacific University too.

Dr. David Hawkins, who has a legitimate medical degree, also has a Ph.D. from Columbia Pacific University. Newspaper reports assert that California's Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, which approves the operation of all private, post-secondary schools in California, denied the school permission to operate as a degree-granting institution in December 1995. This was after a period of review and response that began with Columbia Pacific's application in 1994. The school was closed by court order in 1999, though it operated in its last years without accreditation and without state permission.

Dr. Francine Shapiro--the creator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy--got her doctorate from the now defunct and never accredited Professional School of Psychological Studies. Angel therapist Dr. Doreen Virtue got her doctorate from "distance learning pioneer" California Coast University. Dr. Barry McSweeney, the first Chief Science Advisor to the Government of Ireland, received a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biotechnology from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited institution that the Swedish government called a fake institution that issues bogus degrees.

PhDs of the type obtained by Mr McSweeney from the unaccredited PWU, whose qualifications are not recognised by the US Department of Education, are usually obtained by US workers who pay up to $10,000 to give their CV a sheen of academic credibility. PWU has state approval for some courses in California. The investigative arm of US Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told a Senate committee last year [2004] that 463 government employees had received bogus degrees from a list of phony colleges that included PWU. The GAO report prompted the agency, which conducts background checks on new federal staff, to crack down on the CV cheats who take a shortcut to the top and undermine employees who work long and hard for legitimate degrees but who might get passed over for a raise or promotion.*

Selling diplomas is not a new phenomenon. In 1880, The New York Times reported the suicide of "one of the leaders in the bogus medical diploma trade." Dr. John Buchanan's scam had been exposed in 1872, just eight years after the Civil War ended.* So, the business of handing out degrees for cash has been thriving in the US at least since the days of our Civil War.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: having an advanced degree from a prestigious institution is no guarantee that one will eschew woo. See, for example, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Gary Schwartz, Larry Dossey, Matthias Rath, Andrew Wakefield, Robert Jahn, Rupert Sheldrake, Raymond Moody, and Gary Craig. It should also go without saying, but I'll say it anyway too: some prestigious institutions offer courses that are nearly empty of significant academic content or actively promote woo.

By some perverse logic, one might see the diploma mill as part of an economic stimulus package. People buy degrees from diploma mills. The owners of the mills pay taxes on their earnings. The buyers of the phony degrees get more money in wages than they pay for their diplomas, and they pay more in taxes on their higher wages. The government can then use the additional revenue to give to banks so they can give bonuses to their executives who can then use the money to start up their own diploma or accreditation mill.

See also predatory open access journals.

further reading


U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (This is a searchable database you can use to find out if a school is accredited by a reputable accreditation agency.)

Accreditation and Diploma Mills: Avoiding the Scams

Council for Higher Education Accreditation (see the links under Diploma Mills and Accreditation Mills)

A Brief History of the Diploma Mill Scam (and 10 Tips for Students to Avoid Them) from Online University Data

Federal Trade Commission - Diploma Mills: Degrees of Deception

Questionable [Health] Organizations: An Overview by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Underwater Basket Weaving - the Museum of Hoaxes

books and articles

Andrewsa, Helena. 2005. "Diploma mills provide phony credentials."

Stewart, David Wood and Henry A. Spille. 1988. Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud. Macmillan Publishing Company.

Ezell, Allen and John Bear. 2005. Degree Mills: the Billion Dollar Industry That Has Sold More than a Million Fake College Diplomas. Prometheus Books.

news stories

21 charged with student-visa fraud after feds open fake college in NJ "U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman unveiled the sting operation — the first of its kind involving a sham school set up by agents — at a news conference in Newark after authorities in New Jersey and Washington State arrested 21 brokers, recruiters, and employers for their alleged involvement in what Fishman termed 'a wide-ranging scheme to defraud … the United States in connection with student visas.' The defendants, including a 54-year-old woman from Hackensack, mostly are naturalized citizens of Chinese and Indian backgrounds. They are accused of unlawfully attempting to obtain student visas and foreign worker visas for foreigners from 26 countries, Fishman said."

Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions Seen from the Internet, it is a vast education empire: hundreds of universities and high schools, with elegant names and smiling professors at sun-dappled American campuses. Their websites, glossy and assured, offer online degrees in dozens of disciplines, like nursing and civil engineering. There are glowing endorsements on the CNN iReport website, enthusiastic video testimonials, and State Department authentication certificates bearing the signature of Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We host one of the most renowned faculty in the world,” boasts a woman introduced in one promotional video as the head of a law school. “Come be a part of Newford University to soar the sky of excellence.”

Yet on closer examination, this picture shimmers like a mirage. The news reports are fabricated. The professors are paid actors. The university campuses exist only as stock photos on computer servers. The degrees have no true accreditation. In fact, very little in this virtual academic realm, appearing to span at least 370 websites, is real — except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year from many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani software company.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sues real estate mogul Donald Trump, alleging that the Trump University real-estate training program engages in "persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct."

UK Is Europe's Bogus University Capital

Carlingford University Carlingford was a fake university -- a diploma mill -- created by con artist Kenneth Shong, while he was in prison on forgery charges. (March 10, 2011) Britain is the European capital for bogus universities with more than twice as many unaccredited institutions in the UK as genuine ones, according to Accredibase, a global database of unlicensed rogue universities.

The database now has 339 entries for unlicensed institutions that claim to be based in the UK, an increase of 68 in the past year. The list, which is compiled by Verifile, a CV verification company, names 1,008 unaccredited universities – or “degree mills” – in the US.

Eyal Ben-Cohen, managing director of Verifile, said that “there is really no other way to describe the issuance of fake university degrees [than] as... organized crime”.

The service offered by these unaccredited institutions is to confirm to employers that individuals hold the qualifications they claim. Some unlicensed universities claim to be accredited by agencies such as the “World Association of Universities and Colleges”. But these accreditors, some of which claim scores of members, are not officially recognized.

Unlicensed universities attempt to pass themselves off as genuine institutions. Cambridgeshire University and Oxford International University are not licensed. One institution, Sherwood University, lists an address that makes it appear to be part of London Metropolitan University, a genuine English university.

Many bogus institutions identified by Accredibase share addresses and phone numbers. Accredibase found 19 fake universities sharing the same web server to host their websites, and 10 sharing linked phone numbers.

Mr Ben-Cohen said the government had “started to take action against fake universities because of immigration”. One illicit route into the UK involved using false colleges to sponsor student visa applications. This process is being reviewed, and will be made more stringent as part of efforts to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 people per year. Damian Green, immigration minister, said the UK Border Agency had closed 58 institutions in the past year. However, fake universities pose a broader problem.

The Accredibase report warns that “as university education becomes more expensive and commercialized, students could increasingly resort to the ‘quick fix’ solution offered by bogus providers”. The scale of the problem is hard to ascertain: a search of networking site LinkedIn shows about 2,500 people claiming degrees from Almeda College, a long-running degree mill.

Mr Ben-Cohen said Verifile had offered its finding to the Serious Organised Crime Agency. David Willetts, universities minister, said: “It is very important that we stamp out this abuse. The ‘university’ title is something precious and hard-won. It shouldn’t be exploited in this way.”

Last updated 24-Apr-2016


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