Diploma Mills: Close Enough For Government Work

Most good government jobs require a college degree--but they don't care much whether it's a real one.

Margaret Soltan tells us about the former number two guy at the Baltimore City Schools, fired after it was discovered that his BA and MBA were from unaccredited institutions and observes:

Remember. Public schools, fire departments, the military: None of these places gives a shit about diploma mill degrees. They don’t even know what they are.

But that rather begs the question: Should they care? If a guy is functioning perfectly well as the deputy CEO with a fraudulent MBA, it would seem a pretty fair indicator that one doesn’t really need an MBA to do the job.

Frankly, I can’t think of a single reason fire departments should care about degrees, period. Indeed, charging into burning buildings is a young man’s game; why spend four of them studying about things that have zero bearing on the job.

There’s a legitimate need for formal education for military officers, although we’ve pushed credentialism too far. I finished my master’s degree before my first real job as an Army officer and am always happy when I see senior officers with PhDs. But a master’s degree is a virtual requirement from promotion to lieutenant colonel. Outside of some technical specialties and certain aspects of counterinsurgency and stability operations, there’s no obvious rationale for that. Especially when any old master’s degree will do.

Offhand, you’d certainly think a degree–indeed, several of them–would be necessary to run a school system. After all, if you don’t love education, you probably have no business there. And it stands to reason that an MBA or a JD or a PhD would confer highly useful skills. But so does career experience. Here’s some background on Kevin Seawright, the official in question, from the Baltimore Sun:

On Wednesday, Seawright defended his credentials and qualifications for the deputy chief operating officer position, saying they fit the job description — overseeing, among other things, school facilities, maintenance, transportation, food and nutrition. The deputy COO’s responsibilities include managing up to 1,500 personnel, a $150 million operating budget and a $52 million capital budget. The deputy position is the only one of its kind throughout the school system.

According to public personnel reports, Seawright was hired as a special assistant in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer on Jan. 24, 2006, at a salary of $96,000. Seawright had previously worked as the chief fiscal officer for Baltimore City’s Department of Parks and Recreation for about six years.

In 2008, he was promoted to the deputy chief operating officer at a salary of $130,000 and received a cost-of-living adjustment that brought him to his current salary of $135,200, city school officials said. City school officials said that Seawright was promoted based on his performance, not his credentials.

Both positions require a bachelor’s degree in business, management, finance or a related field, but a master’s degree is preferred, according to the job descriptions. On Wednesday, Seawright said he believed he was “more than qualified to do the job.” “There’s nothing about accredited degrees in my job,” he said. “It was based on experience, too.”

It’s worth noting, too, that he committed no fraud: He listed the bogus degrees on his CV every step of the way and no one seemed to care until the Sun published an investigative report noting that the two schools were unaccredited.

Now, I have no idea how well he was doing his job or how he stacked up against others in similar positions in terms of competency. But it’s not immediately obvious to me why he should have been forced to resign simply because, years into his tenure, someone questioned the quality of his degrees.

Note that I hold the same position in the case of prestige degrees. At some point, the fact that Barack Obama was president of Harvard Law Review or that George W. Bush had his MBA from Harvard ceases to matter. The idea that they should be permanent Get Out of Jail Free cards is absurd. Yet, quite a few people continue to point to decades-old degrees as evidence of competence.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, Government
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I’d also worry that the “academic watchdog groups” might be dedicated to “classroom work” because that’s what they themselves sell.

    I’m sure there are “diploma mills” who just take checks and mail degrees, but I didn’t see anything in that chain of articles which measured or purported to measure student accomplishment.

    Correspondence college does not have classrooms … film at 11.

  2. Janis Gore says:

    Yikes. Tuition is now $37,000 a year at SMU. That’s in line with Harvard.

    Mr. John Lewis was a terrific teacher, but really.

  3. Hello World! says:

    Hhhmmm…I’m not sure how to take this. I worked my *ss off while working full time to get a CS degree, I am working on my masters right now. I have a problem with my employees – many of whom hold masters degrees from bazaar places like the Univesity of India (which is supposedly regionally accredited) and they can’t even write a simple risk analysis. I went to USF, one of the best engineering schools in the country, but its not as good as MIT so people who went to MIT deserve the credit. Better schools = better education = better workers. It really does matter. Experience does count, but people who invested in themselves should be given precedence over those who took easier ways.

  4. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    The district threw him under the bus because it was embarrassed about being caught in its own laxity. Due diligence requires that the district hiring officer investigate the status of the degrees the prospective employee lists. It would seem that the hiring officer, unwilling or incapable of “brazening it out” by saying “yeah, I knew and don’t care because his experience and ability outweighs the credential,” was caught with his “pants down.” Be honest, in a contest between you and somebody else, who would you lobby for being fed to the wolves?

  5. Janis Gore says:

    But you can invest in yourself at the University of Texas just as well as Harvard.

  6. john personna says:

    Has CS ossified that much? 😉

    When I started essentially no one had a CS degree. We had other degrees or no degree at all. I myself had a Chem degree from a Cal State Uni. That school didn’t offer a CS degree until a few years after I graduated. They offered some weird semi-programming thing within the Business school.

    I worked with some really great programmers. Some rare ones had the good degree cred (Berkeley or whatever) but many were roll-overs from biology, or perhaps more commonly electrical engineering. One was a roll-over from surfing 😉

    So go count your degrees Hello World, but if you do you’ll miss a lot of talent.

    You might even miss joining the right start-up, founded by the non CS and non good-school types 😉

  7. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    “Better schools = better education = better workers. It really does matter.” Interestingly enough, some research I encountered many years ago while working for my teaching certification showed that bit of conventional wisdom to not always be true. Good schools=good education=good workers–that is true, but the evidence seemed to indicate that the “better” schools do not graduate workers guaranteed to be better. It has something to do with the benefits that accrue from not always being successful at everything that you do.

    Clearly, if “better schools=…” were true, then conservatives would not be able to creditably criticize the guys running things now as large numbers of them (maybe even most) are graduates of the “best” schools in the nation. Dubya graduated from Yale–was he a “better” President than Reagan–who graduated from a relatively “ordinary” university? How about Obama–a Harvard Law grad if I recall? Is he a “best worker?”

  8. john personna says:

    BTW, back in my day no one but doctors and lawyers piled on the student debt. My dad was a teacher, making enough to put us beyond college aid, but well below the bucks needed for better and remote schools.

    I did the commuter college thing, and graduated debt free.

    Kids today can be victims of a value network that sells them hard on “better schools” and the debt to pay for it all.

  9. I have a problem with my employees – many of whom hold masters degrees from bazaar places like the Univesity of India (which is supposedly regionally accredited) and they can’t even write a simple risk analysis.

    So you’re upset that a computer science degree doesn’t somehow magically confer experience in system engineering? If you want system engineers, why not hire people with a system engineering degree?

  10. Janis Gore says:

    It’s insane. When I went to Reed tuition was something like $2,000 a year. When I finished the bachelor’s at SMU it was $12,000 a year.

    Honestly, kids, get a library card.

  11. john personna says:

    Honestly, kids, get a library card.

    Depending on what you want to be when you grow up, I think that can really be the right move. If there is a way to demonstrate accomplishment, you’re in.

    This was years ago, but a friend of the family had a kid that didn’t quite click in college. So one day the kid takes the arm off the robot he built, goes down to Disney and shows it to them. The next day he’s an Imagineer. Kind of surprised people … but very cool.

  12. john personna says:

    Yikes, I didn’t realize it was this bad:

    The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

    Student loans outstanding now surpass total credit card debt.

    Education bubble, baby.

  13. Sandra says:

    Within ‘some’ circles, the ‘pass’ to get in is a college degree, no specifics, they figure if you put in the time, bingo! you are in. Well, there are lots of people that are taking college classes, some in the ‘traditional manner” others through a ‘night school’ program and many others are taking courses “on-line.”

    In a few classes, the exact SAME content is offered… using all the methods of attendance. Students ARE expected to do the same work; read the text book, do the “topic” papers (which will require additional research and reading), participate in discussions and group work, and oh, yea, pass a final comprehensive exam on the class content. This may be in the form of a final thesis type paper, or a computer scored exam, or a combination of the two.

    You have three students, one is late teens/early twenties and attends via “traditional” method. Another works full time, has a family and attends “night school” somewhere, and the third, works full time but lives beyond commuting distance to a classroom and does the coursework “on-line”

    Which one earned the grade for the class?

    There are “special interests groups” and “watch dog” groups that are actively seeking to LIMIT, not expand, educational opportunities. To enforce an caste system in education far stricter than that in other countries.

    And while not every “on-line” place is a diploma mill, and not every classroom is accredited, maybe a little less of the zealotry in “paper” and more focus on the actual accomplishment of the job being done.

    I don’t know if the places were at the time of enrollment and course completion by this person, accredited. Several places, have been placed on “watch-lists” for various accreditation violations. This list has INCLUDED a few state colleges, as well as private non-profits AND private for-profit schools.

  14. MstrB says:

    This comes into play a little where my wife teaches, with the union contract, simply getting a masters degree raises you a level in the pay scale. So the mills are an easy way to get a pay raise while waiting for your next years of experience raise.

  15. Janis Gore says:

    Anyway, next week I’ll be visiting my eldest brother, the undegreed guy who sold auto parts. The one with the lovely house overlooking Columbia Gorge.

  16. ponce says:

    “Yet, quite a few people continue to point to decades-old degrees as evidence of competence.”

    Everyone tries to shape the world to their advantage.

    If you have a degree, why not work to see that it is a requirement for any job you may hold or want?

  17. mattb says:

    Have to say — after studying and teaching at an Ivy — I can’t agree with:

    Better schools = better education = better workers

    They create the preception of better workers because better schools give their graduates access to “better jobs” (for example the top flight investment banks only hire out of about 5 schools — without much care to the specific program people are graduating from).

    Likewise there’s a real different between Masters Degrees and JD’s and PhD’s. And even in the later category it really comes down to program.

    But ultimately, like James, I find the degree inflation absolutely ridiculous — and I suspect is propitiated as much my universities trying to prop up their graduate enrollments far more than any efficacy in the real world.

  18. Janis Gore says:

    Costs are crazy. What were tuitions when you were studying and teaching, mattb?

  19. mattb says:

    I’d prefer not to say — mainly because I’m still there (as a Grad Student).

  20. Janis Gore says:

    Okey dokey.

  21. Hello World! says:

    LOL…if your trying to tell me that a BS degree from ITT Technical Institute is equal to an engineering degree from MIT then I’m glad you don’t hire they guys building our missles. A lot of people in this thread want to blame the better educational institutions for their own educational short falls. Yes, college is expensive but these days kids are graduating with so much debt mostly because they didn’t want to work part time while going to school and had to be in a frat club and took out loans to do it. Agree…GW should never have gotten into Yale, but just because he has connections that got him there doesn’t mean you should throw the smart people who did get in on merit under the bus. I respect the educated, and fear the idiot.

  22. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    This comes into play a little where my wife teaches, with the union contract, simply getting a masters degree raises you a level in the pay scale. So the mills are an easy way to get a pay raise while waiting for your next years of experience raise.

    The most beautiful example of the phenomenon you are describing comes from my home state where an on-line provider of continuing education clock hours advertises for teachers “Turn your summer vacation trip into clock hours.” The teacher provides a “curriculum” for what he or she will “learn” during the vacation and how it will “benefit” his or her students at some time in the future. After submitting a report and “documenting” the vacation activities, the teacher receives up to 15 clock hours–a five year supply in the continuing education scheme of our state.

    The true beauty of this particular program is that it has been fully endorsed by the state superintendent of schools to the degree that if the provider of the clock hours endorses your “program,” it cannot be challenged–not by your employer, not even by the state. Ya gotta love it.

  23. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    Likewise there’s a real different between Masters Degrees and JD’s and PhD’s. And even in the later category it really comes down to program.

    Please remember that back in the days of Huey Long, a JD was called a Bachelor of Law degree. Apparently, in later years–after law schools (possibly at the urging of the ABA) decided to not let “just anyone” (read–people without undergraduate degrees already) go to law school–law schools (and probably the students who attended them) decided that the degree needed some shining up, thus the transformation to JD.

    1
  24. john personna says:

    @Hello, you’ve completely missed the point if you think someone is going to compare degrees with you.

    We said “demonstrate competence” above. CS is one place where that is completely trivial. You do a project, put it in the cloud, or on a low cost server, or on your phone, and point to that. You say “What can I do? Look here.”

    Now, CS schools are great for making contacts and getting the vibe for near-future trends, but … within a short time you should have those examples up, if you don’t already.

    When everyone else is showing what they’ve done, you don’t want to show a degree. And that’s in fact where James was going way up top when he said “Yet, quite a few people continue to point to decades-old degrees as evidence of competence.”

  25. Hello World! says:

    Personna, I have no idea what you mean about “comparing degrees”. Just because someone can throw up a web-site doesn’t mean it is structured in a way that can grow and expand and change as tech changes (let alone be maintained by someone other than the person who wrote it). I get it, your insecure with yur level of education so instead of taking some classes and getting up to speed you want to pretend that education doesn’t matter.

  26. john personna says:

    Actually, I retired early enough that I feel confident sharing my opinion.

    I got the comparing degrees thing directly from your comment:

    LOL…if your trying to tell me that a BS degree from ITT Technical Institute is equal to an engineering degree from MIT then I’m glad you don’t hire they guys building our [missiles].”

    I’ve actually only known one top-flight Technical Institute type guy (they constantly tried to get him to do TV commercials for their brand, he declined), but I judged him on what he could do, rather than what degree he carried.

    “Just because someone can throw up a web-site doesn’t mean it is structured in a way that can grow and expand and change as tech changes (let alone be maintained by someone other than the person who wrote it).”

    That’s true, and that is the sort of question an interviewer should ask, after you say “look at this.”

    Rather than, say, “what was your degree again?”

  27. Pete Rayls says:

    I disagree with Mr. Joyner’s statement that “credentialism” in the United States Army has gone too far and that, “there’s no obvious rationale” for officers in the rank of lieutenant colonel and above to have a master’s degree. I will state upfront that I am a major in the U.S. Army, and that I do have a master’s degree in American History from the Ohio State University. I think that this “virtual requirement” serves two purposes.

    First, the Army’s dedication to continued education helps the Army grow as an organization. Officers who have a master’s degree bring in new ideas and perspectives to the Army. These are ideas that help the Army find solutions to the difficult problems that it faces day in and day out. Especially at higher levels of leadership in the Army, the intellectual development that comes from graduate education certainly helps prepare officers to cope with these problems. Additionally, I would offer that the possession of a graduate degree helps to give these emerging leaders increased credibility, not only within the Army but also outside of the Army, be it with other government agencies, Congress, or with the public at large.

    Second, education is a useful discriminator for promotion boards to help determine which officers have made an effort to continue their development. On this point, schools can matter. I think we can agree that not all schools are created equal. If all other things were equal, who would you pick: an officer with an MBA from Harvard or an officer with an MBA from Phoenix University. And certainly, the lack of a graduate degree, when all other things are equal, would certainly be a detractor for a promotion file.

    I can speak to this issue from personal experience. As a captain, I was given the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in History at the Ohio State University. My two years at OSU has allowed me to expand my analytical thinking and communication skills. I am always surprised how much my historical knowledge is valued by my colleagues. It generally allows me to put situations into a wider context, and I have gained great skills in the ability to analyze and research solutions to problems. I am willing to admit that I might be a “degree snob,” and I do tend to have more respect for superior officers who have also made the effort in expand themselves intellectually through the attainment of graduate degree.

    Thanks,
    Major Peter Rayls
    United States Army

  28. Hello World! says:

    “Rather than, say, ‘what was your degree again?'”

    You’re really trivializing aren’t you? I’m glad your retired, less competition people who have or are seeking degrees. Your so bright its just hard to compete with!

  29. john personna says:

    You came out strong, Hello, with a claim that ” Better schools = better education = better workers”

    Just about everybody here with real-life experience has called BS on that.

    Use it as a transformational moment.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Pete Rayls

    I think a graduate degree makes sense for colonels and above. I’m not sure it provides much that’s useful in commanding a battalion.

    I’d also point out that, unless the system has radically changed since my day–and I don’t have any indication that it has–“an officer with an MBA from Harvard or an officer with an MBA from Phoenix University” look exactly the same to a promotion board. They’re quite literally a check in the box, taking someone from Civilian Education Level 3 to CEL 2, putting them in the same box as MDs and JDs. CEL1 required a PhD.

  31. Pete Rayls says:

    @ James Joyner

    I agree that a graduate degree for battalion command may not be necessary, but LTCs are also serving on division, corps, and higher staff positions where the decision making is at least at the operational level of war, and at times moving into the strategic level. It is here that the graduate degree can make a difference.

    I would say that schools can matter since the name of the school does appear on the Officer’s Record Brief (ORB), which a board member will look at.

    Thanks,
    Pete

  32. James Joyner says:

    @Pete,

    That’s fair enough. And, in the COIN/SASO environment, there’s real value to a legitimate education for even company and field grade officers. But there’s a big difference between studying history at Ohio State and getting a night school degree in Education or Criminal Justice at the extension center on base or through Online State University. And it’s getting harder to tell those apart with just a cursory glance, since even legitimate schools are now offering online masters degrees of dubious value.

    Again, I’m arguing against credentialism–the need to check the “I have a master’s degree” box–not education.

  33. Pete Rayls says:

    @ James Joyner

    I am also willing to concede on your last point. Merely going to “grad school” to check the block only serves to cheapen it for those who put in the work through programs that are more rigorous.

    It is getting harder, but it can be done. I speak from personal experience on this one. In my last job, I taught American History at the U.S. Military Academy, I also had the additional duty of being the department’s personnel officer (I am an Adjutant General’s Corps officer). Part of this duty was recruiting officers to be rotating faculty members. I got pretty used to scanning through ORBs looking at undergrad and graduate degrees. At least in my case, it was easy to wade through the legitimate schools and those that were less than prestigious.

  34. Pete Rayls says:

    By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that the website has an advertisement for an on-line university on it. Not criticizing, just chuckling at given our conversation.

  35. mattb says:

    Please remember that back in the days of Huey Long, a JD was called a Bachelor of Law degree. Apparently, in later years–after law schools (possibly at the urging of the ABA) decided to not let “just anyone” (read–people without undergraduate degrees already) go to law school–law schools (and probably the students who attended them) decided that the degree needed some shining up, thus the transformation to JD.

    Law as exists/is practiced now, versus back in the days of Long — or of Lincoln — is radically different. For better or worse, we’re well beyond the point where gifted individuals can (or necessarily should) pick up a couple books, pass the bar and hang up a sign.

    BTW, go far enough back and the same argument can be made about PhD’s or MDs.

  36. James Joyner says:

    @Pete: Most of the ads are auto-generated based on the page content. So, yes, this often has the perverse effect of the thing that I’m criticizing becoming a “sponsor” of the post!

  37. Mike Hunt says:

    GWB has a Harvard MBA, not Yale…

  38. James Joyner says:

    GWB has a Harvard MBA, not Yale…

    Right you are. Fixed. He and his dad (and one of his daughters) are Yale grads. But he went to the other place for B-school.