Degree Mills

Paul Sperry has as an interesting piece in Reason entitled, “Cut-Rate Diplomas: How doubts about the government’s own “Dr. Laura” exposed a resume fraud scandal. ” It discusses the case of “Dr.” Laura L. Callahan, the former deputy chief information officer at the Department of Labor whose three degrees were from an online degree mill called Hamilton University.

This isn’t surprising at all to me. There are thousands of perfectly legitimate universities out there and some untold number of degree mills. Some of the otherwise”legitimate” schools have departments or extension centers that are degree mills. Knowing which is which is almost impossible–although Hamilton seems a rather clear case:

To get her Ph.D., Callahan merely had to thumb through a workbook and take an open-book exam. The whole correspondence course—which includes instruction on business ethics—takes about five hours to complete. A 2,000-word paper (shorter than this article) counts as a dissertation.

I actually had a graduate criminal justice course a few years ago at a historically black college in Albany, Georgia whose professor had his degree from Hamilton. I knew it was an online institution and that the instructor didn’t know his subject matter, so didn’t value his “degree” very highly, but he was tenured and making a pretty good salary. In my last teaching job, I had a department chair with a Ph.D. from a very prestigious school. His degree program, though, was apparently a “gentleman’s course” designed to credential people very advanced in their government careers. Rather than the requiring the formalities of assigning huge stacks of journal articles and demanding the writing of long papers, the program consisted mostly of colloquies where non-traditional professors (retired diplomats and the like) told war stories. Distinguishing “real” from “fake” degrees is incredibly subjective. Unless one has in-depth knowledge of how a program is set up, it would be almost impossible for a casual observer to know the difference.

At least 28 senior-level employees had degrees from diploma mills, the GAO found, while cautioning that this number is believed to be an understatement.” Among them: Daniel P. Matthews, chief information officer for the Department of Transportation (which oversees the Transportation Security Administration), who got his $3,500 bachelor of science degree within eight months from diploma mill Kent College in Mandeville, Louisiana, and three unnamed managers with super-secret Q-level security clearance at the National Nuclear Security Administration—including an Air Force lieutenant colonel who attended no classes and took no tests to get a promotion-enabling master’s degree from LaSalle University, a diploma mill affiliated with Kent College and also based in Mandeville. No word yet if they, too, will be forced to resign, or if it will again take the news media to drum them out of office.

The GAO report has prompted the OPM, which conducts background checks on new federal hires, to crack down on the résumé cheats, who short-cut their way to the top and undermine those employees who work long and hard for legitimate degrees and who might get passed over for a raise or promotion. The agency is revising its hiring and background investigation forms to emphasize that degrees must be from accredited schools. It also has authorized more money for background checks so job applicants’ academic credentials can be more thoroughly investigated. Down the road, U.S. senators are considering legislation to ban agencies from paying for courses from unaccredited schools. (Congress is not immune to the scam. In fact, an aide to the Senate committee that investigated the Callahan scandal had enrolled in an unaccredited school.)

With the proliferation of online universities and distance learning courses, this trend is likely to continue rather than abate. This is especially true with regard to people working in the government sector, where degrees are often regarded as boxes to be checked off rather than an actual set of skills to be learned.

via Joanne Jacobs

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I submit this fraud is what results when companies make a degree of ANY kind a prerequisite for hiring. As an example, in a former job, (As the name implies, I’m in IT) where the boss had a degree in English lit, and didn’t know a the company decided that because of that degree he was more qualified to run an IT group, than soeone who had round 18 years of real-world IT under his belt.

  2. Mr Bob says:

    This kind of thing makes me sick to my stomach. I was never able to attend college until now (I am 41) because of the amount of time it takes to really learn (you can skate, but I didn’t want to) I go to an online university (Colorado Technical University Online) and am in my Junior year towards a B.S. It goes year round, each class requires a myriad of assignments, formatted perfectly, and the University is fully accredited. I hate the fact that mills like these are giving Universities like mine a bad name