"Buy a degree online!"
We've all seen the spam. Makes no difference if you live in the urban United States or outer Australia. The "buy a degree" scam has gone global.
Diploma mills, which offer consumers a chance to buy online degrees (rather than earn them), are no longer a problem that is limited to the United States. As Judith Eaton, director of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), states, the world is suffering from a global epidemic of fake online degree providers:
"Degree mills and false credentialing are a serious problem worldwide, harming students, society and legitimate higher education."
Fake online colleges that lure consumers in with the promise they can buy a degree online, fast and for a few hundred dollars, are thriving. These diploma mills, often advertised as operating from headquarters in the U.S. while mailing credentials and diplomas from mail boxes overseas, represent a global problem that is being emboldened by several economic and social factors.
Alan Contreras, administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, agrees that the number of bogus online "colleges" based outside the U.S. is a worsening problem.
Within the U.S., says Contreras, states are becoming more vigilant and adopting regulations to force online unaccredited schools and schools accredited by fake agencies out of business.
In the past 10 years, for example, the number of states that have made the use of an unaccredited degree illegal has jumped from two to 11.
In Oregon, says Contreras, people who attempt to pass off fake diplomas face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"The domestic part of the problem is really the smaller half of it anymore," says Contreras. "There's not that many states where it's easy to run a fake degree-granter—California and Hawaii are the only ones where it's relatively easy."
The bigger problem, he says, is international Internet fraud involving fake diplomas.
"Because of the Internet, it is very easy for entities located in other countries to sell degrees to residents of the U.S. or anywhere else."
For example, Contreras says, Rochville University and its partner, Belford University, ship fake diplomas from the United Arab Emirates, "but there's no way of knowing where the owner of the entity is. Rochville is not a legal degree-granter in the United Arab Emirates; it's not on anybody's list of degree-granters."
Rochville University, an online college which awards diplomas based on life experience, granted an online MBA to GetEducated.com’s mascot, a pug dog named Chester Ludlow, in June 2009.
Employers often have a difficult time verifying which online schools are legit and which are diploma mills, especially if the schools are internationally based and not covered by U.S. accreditation organizations.
"The biggest problem is it's next to impossible to screen out international suppliers, and there's no regulatory mechanism I can foresee that can have any effect on them," says Contreras.
The profit motive for online university scams makes it unlikely that they will stop any time soon: One degree mill can sell thousands of fakes a year, with little overhead (it's not as if they employ faculty, after all).
St. Regis University, in Spokane, Wash., was estimated to have grossed about $3 million in five years. St. Regis operated from the United States while claiming approval from the African country of Liberia. Its founders are now serving prison time in Washington State.
At present, there is no single source that accredits online colleges worldwide. Consumers in the United States seeking to get an online degree should verify that their online college is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA.
Get Educated operates the Diploma Mill Police, a database of the biggest online degree mills which consumers, human resource professionals and resume screeners can consult and add to at no charge. This free service includes a list of online schools that are most commonly cited as having fake or dubious accreditation. Articles are also provided to help consumers avoid online education scams.
Students considering online colleges that claim accreditation outside the United States should check UNESCO’s Portal of Higher Education. UNESCO, a trusted global source, lists internationally based colleges and that are properly recognized by their country of origin.