Fake-Degree Burns By Researching Academic Credentials
If you’re a hiring manager or human
resources professional, chances are you review applications and resumes from
people who want to work for your organization or who want to be promoted. Some
applicants may list credentials — like a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral
degree, or a professional certification — that sound credible, but in fact,
were not earned through a legitimate course of study at an accredited
Federal officials caution that some people are buying phony credentials from
“diploma mills” — companies that sell “degrees” or certificates on the Internet
without requiring the buyer to do anything more than pay a fee. Most diploma
mills charge a flat fee, require little course work, if any, and award a degree
based solely on “work or life experience.”
According to officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department
of Education, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) bogus credentials
can compromise your credibility — and your organization’s. You could place an
unqualified person in a position of responsibility, leaving your organization
liable if the employee’s actions harm someone. You could hire a person who is
dishonest in other ways, exposing your organization and colleagues to potential
damage. And if the bogus degrees are brought to light, you risk embarrassment.
The agencies have teamed up, putting new tools in place to help you weed out
bogus academic credentials and insure the integrity of your hiring process.
Tell-tale Signs of a Bogus Degree
Although it’s not always easy to tell if academic credentials are from an
accredited institution, the federal officials say there are clues to help you
spot questionable credentials on a resume or application. Look for:
Out of Sequence
Degrees. When you review education claims, you
expect to see degrees earned in a traditional progression — high school,
followed by bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral or other advanced degrees. If an
applicant claims a master’s or doctoral degree, but no bachelor’s degree — or
if the applicant claims a college degree, but no high school diploma or General
Educational Development (GED) diploma, consider it a red flag, and a likely
sign of a diploma mill.
It generally takes time to earn a college or advanced degree — three to four
years for an undergraduate degree, one or two years for a master’s degree, and
even longer to earn a doctorate. A degree earned in a very short time, or
several degrees listed for the same year, are warning signs for the hiring
official or the person doing the preliminary screening.
Schools in Locations Different From the Applicant’s Job or Home.
If the applicant worked full-time while attending school, check the locations
of the job and the educational institution. If the applicant didn’t live where
he went to school, check to see if the degree is from an accredited distance
learning institution, using the steps described under ‘Checking Out Academic Credentials.’ If the degree is not from a
legitimate, accredited distance learning institution, it may be from a diploma
Some diploma mills use names that sound or look like those of well-known
colleges or universities. If the institution has a name similar to a well-known
school, but is located in a different state, check on it. Should you come
across a degree from an institution with a prestigious-sounding foreign name, that calls for some homework, too. Researching the
legitimacy of foreign schools can be a challenge, but consider it a warning
sign if an applicant claims a degree from a country where she never lived.
Out Academic Credentials
Federal officials recommend that you always check academic credentials, even
when the school they’re from is well-known. Some applicants may falsify
information about their academic backgrounds rather than about their work
history, possibly because employers are less likely to check with schools for
verification or to require academic transcripts.
Here’s how to verify academic credentials:
the school. Most college registrars will confirm dates of
attendance and graduation, as well as degrees awarded and majors, upon request.
If the applicant gives permission, they may provide a certified academic
transcript. If you aren’t familiar with the school, don’t stop your research
just because someone answers your questions on the phone or responds with a
letter. Some diploma mills offer a “verification service” that will send a
phony transcript to a prospective employer who calls.
the school on the Internet. Check to see if the school is
accredited by a recognized agency. Colleges and universities accredited by
legitimate agencies generally undergo a rigorous review of the quality of their
educational programs. If a school has been accredited by a nationally
recognized accrediting agency, it’s probably legitimate. Many diploma mills
claim to be “accredited,” but the accreditation is from a bogus, but
official-sounding, agency they invented.
You can use the Internet to check if a school is accredited by a legitimate
organization at a new database of accredited academic institutions, posted by
the U.S. Department
of Education at www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
(There are a few legitimate institutions that have not pursued accreditation.)
To find out if an accrediting agency is legitimate, check the list of
recognized national and regional accrediting agencies maintained by the Council
for Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org.
Look at the school’s website. Although it is prudent to check out the school on
the Internet, it’s not always easy to pick out a diploma mill based on a quick
scan of its site. Some diploma mills have slick websites, and a “dot-edu” Web
address doesn’t guarantee legitimacy. Nevertheless, the website can be a source
of information. Indeed, federal officials say it’s probably a diploma mill if:
tuition is charged on a per-degree basis, rather
than per credit, course, or semester
there are few or unspecified degree requirements,
or none at all
the emphasis is on degrees for work or life
the school is
relatively new, or has recently changed its name.
Check other resources. There is no comprehensive list of diploma mills on the
Web because new phony credentialing sources arise all the time. However, the Oregon Student
Assistance Commission’s Office of Degree Authorization maintains a list of
organizations it has identified as diploma mills at www.osac.state.or.us/oda. Another
way to check up on a school is to call the registrar of a local college or
university and ask if it would accept transfer credits from the school you are
the applicant for proof of the degree and the school’s accreditation. If you
don’t get satisfactory answers from the school itself and the accreditation
sites on the Web, ask the applicant for proof of the degree, including a
certified transcipt, and the school’s accreditation. Ultimately, it’s up to the
applicant to show that he earned his credentials from a legitimate institution.
OPM oversees the federal work force
and provides the American public with up-to-date employment information. OPM
also supports U.S. agencies with
personnel services and policy leadership including staffing tools, guidance on
labor-management relations and programs to improve work force performance.
The U S. Department of Education
establishes federal policy and administers and coordinates most federal
assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education
policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress. The
Department’s mission is to serve America’s students—to ensure
that all have equal access to education and to promote excellence in our