Quote of the Day – Degree Mill Edition

“I’m afraid that the ease with which these outfits hand out diplomas is matched only by the disappointment of their graduates when they find out how little their degrees are actually worth.”  – Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington

diploma-millsHe’s talking about the rise of for profit “universities” that are absorbing nearly half a billion dollars a year from the U.S. taxpayer providing “degrees” to American servicemen.  Daniel Golden for Bloomberg:

For-profit online colleges are taking over higher education of the U.S. military, lured by a Defense Department pledge of free schooling up to $4,500 a year for active members of the armed services, costing taxpayers more than $3 billion since 2000. The schools account for 29 percent of college enrollments and 40 percent of the half-billion-dollar annual tab in federal tuition assistance for active-duty students, displacing public and private nonprofit colleges, according to Defense Department and military data.

The shift is leading to educational shortcuts and over- zealous marketing, said Greg von Lehmen, chief academic officer of the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, the adult-education branch of the state system and one of the earliest and biggest providers of military education. “In these schools, the rule is faster and easier,” von Lehmen said. “They’re characterized by increasingly compressed course lengths and low academic expectations. One has to ask: Is the Department of Defense getting what it is seeking?”

[…]

Mike Shields, a retired Marine Corps colonel and human resources director for U.S. field operations at Schindler Elevator Corp., rejects about 50 military candidates each year for the company’s management development program because their graduate degrees come from online for-profits, he said in an interview. Schindler Elevator is the North American operating entity of Schindler Holding AG in Hergiswil, Switzerland, the world’s second-largest elevator maker. “We don’t even consider them,” Shields said. “For the caliber of individuals and credentials we’re looking for, we need what we feel is a more broadened and in-depth educational experience.” He does hire service members with online degrees for jobs on non-leadership tracks, he said.

[…]

Online schools such as American Military University have relocated their headquarters to obtain certification from regional boards with less demanding standards, according to interviews with for-profit college officials and accrediting agencies. Or they’re approved by less established organizations, leaving students hard-pressed to transfer credits to other colleges or find jobs at major corporations.

[…]

Bradford Rand, chief executive of Techexpo Top Secret in New York, which runs job fairs for defense contractors recruiting recent veterans, said a degree from an online for- profit is a disadvantage. “You have two people of the same caliber, one has a degree from a real college, one has a degree from a computer, I’m going to favor the one from the live college,” Rand said. “It’s more verifiable, more credible.”

I taught some online graduate courses, aimed mostly at overseas military officers, at Troy when I was teaching full time at their main campus.  Trying to treat it as if it were a legitimate graduate class was a constant source of frustration.  Students simply didn’t have the time to do the reading and research — they were, after all, on active duty in a military with a high operations tempo.  But they’d been led to believe that the courses would be easy — there wouldn’t be much work and they could do it at their leisure.  The school got a lot of money, paid its faculty quite generously, and the students got the credentials they wanted.  Those of us who resisted the degree mill model were messing up that model.   (I’m reliably informed that the rigor has picked up, although not to the level one would expect in a traditional on campus graduate program even at Troy.)

But the military is as much at fault here as the degree mills.  They quite literally treat college education as a check in a box.   A master’s degree from Harvard or one from Walden both get officers over the “must have master’s degree” hurdle for promotion to lieutenant colonel.  And, since few officers are given the time to attend classes at a real school, the incentive to get a dubious degree in the little spare time available is powerful.  The same is true, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the federal civil service and for teachers in many school systems across the country:  It’s the degree that matters, not the learning.

The obvious solution is to start allotting time for people to go to school, if getting an education is really important.  The less obvious solution is to quit rewarding the attainment of educational credentials if, as it would seem, a bogus degree is as valid as a real one.  To the extent that the skills imparted by higher education are valuable to an employer, they should be apparent in actual job performance.  So just reward people who do their jobs well and don’t worry about what degrees they have.

Story via Margaret Soltan.

FILED UNDER: Education, Military Affairs, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. Dave Schuler says:

    The less obvious solution is to quit rewarding the attainment of educational credentials if, as it would seem, a bogus degree is as valid as a real one.

    Doesn’t that support the claim I’ve been making for some time, that the benefits of education from a national economy standpoint are illusory? If it’s the gatekeeper function of the certification or degree rather than the skills that education presumably confers, isn’t the cheaper, easier strategy barriers to entry in everything?

  2. To the extent that the skills imparted by higher education are valuable to an employer, they should be apparent in actual job performance.

    Computer programming has always had an imperfect mapping to degree attainment (the field exploded faster than the schools). One solution to this is that most aggressive firms now set their applicants to coding tests at the interview. The way to move the metric to the graduate is test them directly. If you can’t trust anyone else to do that, do it yourself.

    FWIW, I look forward to net-empowered eduction for both its reach and cost reductions, but I think that colleges will have to provide testing (and direct student metrics) that people can trust.

  3. BTW, I think I came to this position by a different path than Dave, but I suspect that the US graduates too many Bachelors these days (and as I’ve said, in the wrong fields).

    Other links America’s broken colleges, That Old College Lie, and:

    “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

    Ray Bradbury, on the library he loves the most, which has just closed

  4. Rick DeMent says:

    The fact of the matter is that HR departments increasingly require degrees for advancement for internal candidates. So what tends to happen is someone is up for a higher position that they are more than qualified to do by virtue of that fact that they have been working in that department and know the ins and outs of the job better than anyone else. HR says that in order to get the job they need X degree and so the person is put in a bind. They must waste time and energy on a degree that cannot help them in the slightest at what they do (in fact it will be a huge distraction), the company must pay for it by allocation of $$ to an endeavor that will net them nothing at all. And here is a place where they can get a credential faster, easier, and at a reduced price.

    Most jobs today require a degree that is completely unnecessary to actually do the job at hand. It’s nothing but lazy credentialisum. Most jobs have no mapping to University curriculum at all; in fact most kids in University today will be doing jobs in ten years that don’t even exist today. The University system is a dinosaur.

  5. John Burgess says:

    This isn’t only a problem for Americans. Foreign students, who have zero experience with how the American educational systems work, are prone to signing up for what they assume will be legitimate degrees. The problem is that the degrees actually are legitimate: they’ve got some sort of regional accreditation and they’re licensed in one form or other by the states.

    Unfortunately, they’re useless for the purposes for which the students intend them, i.e., jobs and salaries.

    These are not properly called ‘diploma mills’ in my book. The mills are the ones that send you a diploma when your check clears their bank. Instead, they are ‘alternative’ or ‘continuing’ or some other vague term that keeps within the laws.

    It’s very true that HR departments find it too easy to insist on academic qualifications far beyond the necessary. While working in various US embassies abroad, the qualifications for staff positions were so high that I, as a supervisor, couldn’t have met them. Degrees measure something, but that something isn’t necessarily what’s critical to a particular job.

  6. MstrB says:

    James-

    In your image I think you are confusing Regis University (a Jesuit institution founded in 1877) with Saint Regis University (the diploma mill that was closed down in 2005 by the government).

  7. MstrB says:
  8. sam says:

    Most jobs have no mapping to University curriculum at all; in fact most kids in University today will be doing jobs in ten years that don’t even exist today.

    Might be an argument for a good, solid education in the Humanities, no? (Unless, I hasten to add, your career goals are in a technical area. But even then, a grounding the Humanities is a good thing.) The possession of well-honed critical thinking and writings skills would be a positive for any employer, I’d think.

  9. James Joyner says:

    In your image I think you are confusing Regis University (a Jesuit institution founded in 1877) with Saint Regis University (the diploma mill that was closed down in 2005 by the government).

    Could be. It’s a graphic I found doing a Google search for “diploma mill.”

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The possession of well-honed critical thinking and writings skills would be a positive for any employer, I’d think.

    You’re kidding, right? You might ask James or Steven Taylor of PoliBlog what their experience was in those areas with their students. The problem today is more that too many college level students can’t read or write, period, than that they need to hone their critical thinking and writing skills. “Hone” implies there was an edge to begin with.

  11. James Joyner says:

    You might ask James or Steven Taylor of PoliBlog what their experience was in those areas with their students. The problem today is more that too many college level students can’t read or write, period, than that they need to hone their critical thinking and writing skills. “Hone” implies there was an edge to begin with.

    Fortunately, even the year I taught at a community college, my students could read and write. But very few of them had the ability to read, much less write, analytically.

    So, we were working with the equivalent of a plastic spork in most instances.

  12. Drew says:

    Before we put a spork in university education, as some have suggested………

    I don’t know where else you learn how to make / why fluid flows in a pipe, electricity flows in a wire, or how the extractive industries work by driving chemical reactions to separable phases.

    Why does a super alloy turbine blade work at high temp……why is BCC iron ductile and refractory brittle? And on it goes. You don’t get this on the job.

    And as I’ve noted before. Sometimes I belly laugh at certain business and managerial concepts voiced on these blogs. But so much of those concepts could be avoided with a basic grounding in the fundamentals. And so it goes….

    BTW – Reading Homer is fine. But it won’t address the topics I mentioned…….

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t know where else you learn how to make / why fluid flows in a pipe, electricity flows in a wire, or how the extractive industries work by driving chemical reactions to separable phases.

    Why does a super alloy turbine blade work at high temp……why is BCC iron ductile and refractory brittle? And on it goes. You don’t get this on the job.

    Nowadays you won’t learn any of those things taking a Humanities major. Which is what I was reacting to.

    Back in those old, antique, benighted days when I was a college undergraduate even people in the college of arts and sciences needed to take science and math to graduate. Today it ain’t necessarily so.

  14. Drew says:

    Dave –

    Understood.

    Oy

  15. Alex Knapp says:

    Drew,

    I don’t know where else you learn how to make / why fluid flows in a pipe, electricity flows in a wire, or how the extractive industries work by driving chemical reactions to separable phases.

    Why does a super alloy turbine blade work at high temp……why is BCC iron ductile and refractory brittle? And on it goes. You don’t get this on the job.

    That is spot on.

  16. The first thing to note is that knowledge and certification are two different things. Bradbury’s library has been providing knowledge for decades (libraries in general, millennia). I’m sure there were some good books on electricity, fluid dynamics, and chemical engineering there.

    Colleges provide structure and certification. It’s no coincidence that they grew up around libraries. Big libraries and big colleges mapped 1:1

    What’s happened since 1980 say, is that the library has escaped the college and onto the nets.

    The right question to ask since then is not can you learn, but how do you structure and certify while leveraging off all of that escaped knowledge?

    At least that’s what I’d hope we’d ask, rather than pretending that this is still 1970, and all knowledge is still on-campus.

    (I suspect that we’ll need fewer butts-in-chairs for to hear things a bright 14-year-old can already google. I’d suspect that lectures will be more meta-knowledge oriented, and that testing will be the key, rather than attendance. This will probably take time though, because both quasi-public and quasi-private colleges have an easy gig getting paid for butts-in-chairs.)

  17. (Google Scholar search for “alloy turbine blade.”)

  18. please rescue my google scholar turbine blade comment. spam filter liked the taste. thx.

  19. W4LT says:

    It is worse than you think. After I had advanced to candidacy but before I completed my dissertation, I worked for about 18 months for a “research consulting service.” In fact, we basically wrote people’s theses and dissertations for them. They would employ people like me, financially challenged but highly educated and skilled individuals looking for part time work. No single person would do the entire dissertation – for example, one guy would get the lit review, then some gal would do the methods chapter, and someone else would do results & discussion. But, we all knew what was going on – often, the “clients” would forward their university requirements, and 99% of the time it would be from Walden or Nova or some such. The most common area of “graduate” degrees? Education. Psychology was 2nd. Presumably their Bachelor’s degrees were legit, but anyone wanting to go into school administration needed a doctorate, and many of them went this route. The guy who coordinated the outfit I worked for said they handled between 30 and 50 dissertations a year.

    It goes without saying that I am not at all proud of the time I spent doing this.

  20. Drew says:

    Alex –

    I suspected that might strike a chord with you in particular.

    odo –

    Newton might have been able to happen upon a book describing the K1 loaded, multi-cycle fracture mechanic behavior of austenitic stainless steel vs, say, common HSLA steels. He might even have been able to fully understand, describe and produce the equilibrium phase diagram of iron, sulfur, carbon and oxygen at 2000 F and standard pressure.

    But mortal men, me included, need help. If you think me wrong, go to your precious library, read away, and then report back to us explaining what I just said.

    Good luck.

  21. Good Lord, another patient explanation of my position from me, and another ad homenum attack from Drew. Just what we should expect I guess.

    I guess he missed this totally:

    The right question to ask since then is not can you learn, but how do you structure and certify while leveraging off all of that escaped knowledge?

    It doesn’t quite fit with his “fill in the blanks” attack mode.

  22. Sandra says:

    I am actually rather surprised that no one has taken on what this is all about — economic class-ism.

    Those whose parents have the means, go to school in a full time traditional (brick and mortar) setting. Whose of us without parental connections, work, enlist, and cobble together “attendance” and course work as we are able.

    My father earned an automotive engineering degree, while working full time for Chevy (GM) with much of his general education credit coming from attending “night school.” He attended the old GMI back when it was a first rate corporate institution, to attend classes. His classmates were from all over GM and had undergrad degrees from a variety of schools. But there was a definite “bias” against those that earned their degrees in a non-traditional manner.

    That continues to today, there is a very real bias against non-traditional methods of getting a college education. Even if you attend classes on campus, doing so at age 25+ is a strike against you.

    It took me over 25 years to earn my undergrad degree by taking classes offered by various schools while I served on active duty. A few instructors did “easy” grading. But they would have done that no matter what the setting. Other instructors cut no slack, they taught during the day the classes and again at night and on weekends. We “non-traditional” students were doing the exact same work. But with the responsibilities of being adults, wage earners and parents, not “kids” with nothing better to do between classes, than to get drunk or attend liberal indoctrination sessions.

  23. Sandra says:

    Drew – “Why does a super alloy turbine blade work at high temp……why is BCC iron ductile and refractory brittle? And on it goes. You don’t get this on the job.”

    But sometimes you do! As to why certain metals perform better at higher temps found in a turbine, or the difference between BCC and refractory — how do you prefer it, laymen or engineering definitions?

    Unless I am a structural engineer or metallurgist (scientist), or work in an industry sector to produce these items, the knowledge that this all depends upon the specific the crystalline structure of metal molecules, as well as the types of ion bands between atoms ought to be enough to get by for most of my life.

    Being able to equate electric current to water current, and understand that there is a REASON why certain household appliances need a separate electrical circuit, and that the “dream” of electric cars is actually a power production nightmare… Well that is high school physics.

  24. Sandra reminds me why I see this differently. I started in a unique industry. Companies were so hungry for programmers in the 80’s that they were hiring anyone who could. When I joined my first engineering team the star programmers were a couple guys with high school degrees. I had a degree in an unrelated science, and two programming courses under my belt.

    The most important thing I’d learned at college was how to learn in an unstructured environment. That was important because computer science was a moving target. I probably learned about five major skill sets over the next ~30 years.

    In the 80’s we did that by reading books and talking to co-workers. In the 90’s we did it more by reading books and participating in online forums. In the 00’s we started using online tutorials. Online tutorials rock. The media continue to evolve. I just found Stack Overflow which is amazing. It’s both a learning site and a pulse of what other people are learning.

    Computer heads were online and doing this earlier and have seen more payoff. I’m sure now that a motivated kid with a trusted mentor or two could learn what he needs remotely. Of course not every kid is motivated, or follows mentor’s advice. That’s where degrees and certification have to come in.

    (If you are user-level with computers, you might benefit from the Stack Overflow sister site called Super User.)

  25. J says:

    “rejects about 50 military candidates each year for the company’s management development program because their graduate degrees come from online for-profits”

    This strikes me as an abnormally large number for a company of Schindler’s (domestic) size; I suspect he’s talking about candidates who shotgunned a resume to him and had zero likelihood of being hired anyway. It’s an interesting statement, but not that relevant to the point presumably being made.

    Also, it’s not clear why a degree from a diploma mill would matter in the situation he mentions; educational credentials have nothing to do with leadership potential, and even if they did, unless you’re hiring 21 year olds, work experience/responsibilities are a much more valid measure.

    “The same is true, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the federal civil service and for teachers”

    Have to disagree with the “somewhat lesser extent” qualifier.

  26. Drew says:

    odo the angel –

    Please, spare me. Answer the question directly or shut up.

  27. Drew says:

    Sandra –

    Good to hear from you. As someone who worked in the steel industry and in the product areas that supplied primarily the auto sector I am very familiar with GMI, and would echo the notion that it was a fine institution, although not “sexy.”

    I recall a conversation with my father as I was explaining to him that I just HAD to go to Harvard. He looked down his nose at me and inquired: “are you saying that you are so special that you will exhaust the resources of all other universities except Harvard.”

    I walked away with tail between legs. The blog site can have their snicker at my expense on that one!!

    Now:

    “Unless I am a structural engineer or metallurgist (scientist), or work in an industry sector to produce these items, the knowledge that this all depends upon the specific the crystalline structure of metal molecules, as well as the types of ion bands between atoms ought to be enough to get by for most of my life.”

    To save odo some time, since I’m sure he is diligently researching the library…..(snicker) And skip yer ions. Here’s the deal:

    Superalloys (high temp alloys) work because their face centered cubic crystal structure is the equilibrium x-struc at high temperatures. As such, they can maintain their crystal structure and the fundamental precipitation hardening mechanism of finely dispersed rare earth carbides and nitrides which pin dislocations and prevent loss of strength at high temp. As such, they only suffer from, in the long term, creep and diffusion driven loss of the “fine dispersion” as dislocations have the required energy to “move” and carbides and nitrides coalesce.

    Now, normal high strength steels are body centered cubic crystals that, although they can benefit from the same precipitation hardening mechanisms with vanadium or columbium carbides, can only work in lower temperature environments. They fail at high temps because they change phase to FCCubic…….and the carbides dissolve. Uh-oh. No strength.

    This technospeak actually has a real world application when it comes to the World Trade Center nuts. Many such nuts have said “the towers had to be blown up (by Dick Cheney) because the temperatures couldn’t have reached the point where the steel beams would melt and fail!!!

    Uhh, errr. Wrong.

    Most structural steel beams, like those in the WTC, are so-called “A-36” grade. That is, 36KSI yield strength. (In English: the load when the beam gives like taffy.) Maybe A-40.

    The nuts point out that for the beams to melt you must achieve about 3000 degrees, an impossible condition. True. However, steel goes through the phase transform I cited from BCC to FCC at about 1200 degrees. That’s “red hot,” (Think a blacksmith pounding out horse shoes) and easily achievable in the WTC fire.

    And that of course is what happened. And when those beams suffered that phase transformation, the engineering strength fell by about a half. We all know the rest.

    Endeth, the lesson………….

  28. LOL Drew, not only are you making the argument that “if I won’t do an unfunded engineering project for you, then universities are still required” … you are reveling in it.

    I just had a good but weird mountain bike ride. That always helps to put poop like this in perspective. The trails weren’t muddy but were still tacky from the last rain. Made for a weird resistance on climbs.

    … to think I could have been doing Drew’s unfunded project instead!

  29. Drew says:

    “LOL Drew, not only are you making the argument that “if I won’t do an unfunded engineering project for you, then universities are still required” ”

    Uhh, err. Sigh. What a zero.

  30. Drew, it is a sign of arrested adolescence when you can’t argue against an idea, but can only argue against a person with an idea.

    I gave a link to a site in my field, Stack Overflow, where you can see real learning and mentoring running in real-time. It works.

    Why would you prefer an artificial test for me in another field? Why would you expect me to care, when I have clients already?

  31. Sandra says:

    Drew, Thank-you.

    Can you harmonize radars too?

  32. Sandra says:

    John,
    Isn’t that a great site? Within IT there is really no way to study it in a college setting except to either “get paper” for what you already know, or to gain a better “historical perspective” over what has been done before.

    Right now there is still a need for COBOL (and other legacy systems languages) programmers, that can translate some of the older mainframe programming into more usable stuff for the current generation of processors. But are any colleges teaching it?

    Does anyone on their staff still know it?

  33. john personna says:

    It is an interesting time, Sandra. It’s hard not to think that the university and learning are in transition, but harder to know where it is really headed.

    Last time there was a COBOL crunch, for y2k, “pay them and they will come” worked 😉 I did some transition work, where part of the team knew the old COBOL system and part prepared the replacement, in our case Oracle on Solaris or HP-UX. I was a UNIX guy at that point, and the COBOL guys had fun quoting outrageous rates at us.