Media coverage helps to make the fake degree and diploma mill business a more mainstream concern. Apparently, the practice of buying a fake degree is not confined to the under-educated wage earners and illegal immigrants. Yes, both these demographics exhibit the incentives that drive diploma mills, but there are plenty of other well-educated individuals who, by most standards, ought to know better.
A major indicator of potential problems at the top, so to speak, broke loose in 2003. Laura Callahan served in a position as a Chief Information Officer with the Department of Homeland Security. A fellow employee ratted her out when he suspected flimsy education accomplishments. She had “earned” three degrees. Her most recent had been a Ph.D. degree, which had helped gain her the six-figure salary and CIO position. The degrees were bought from Hamilton University. HU, the Department figured out, was a diploma mill that ran out of Wyoming, just one of a handful of states with weak diploma mill laws. Callahan was eventually asked to resign in 2004.
Following this episode, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) conducted an in-depth investigation designed to ferret out other government employees with federally funded illegitimate degrees to their name. Interestingly, the primary goal of the investigation focused on use of federal funds, not the fact that fake degrees existed in the federal government, which would be the most alarming data for the general public. The study revealed that 463 federal employees listed fake degrees among their educational accomplishments, 28 of which belonged to “high-ranking officials including three managers responsible for emergency operations at nuclear facilities,” reported Wired magazine.
The GAO study, as such, was limited. The investigators sought student records from four diploma mills, but one refused to participate. Requested records were only those of “students” whose professional records listed government employment. Considering the fact that one diploma mill never participated in the study, and that the pool of diploma mills is much more expansive than the sampled three, officials concluded that there are likely even more government employees sporting degrees from half-baked institutions.
Callahan argued ignorance. She claimed to have believed her “life experience” was a viable exchange for not one, not two, but three degrees, including a Ph.D. degree, one of the most prestigious and difficult to attain academically. She also claims to have checked out Hamilton University’s credentials. The school advertised itself as accredited, but it was “accredited” by an un-recognized entity.
A couple of reports underscore oversights within the Labor Department that could have easily tipped off officials to Callahan’s low-quality academics. The LD was Callahan’s first employer and officials there were allegedly aware that her degrees had come from an unaccredited institution.1
What about the officials that hired the 28 high-level officials? According to the GAO, officers responsible for promoting or hiring these employees argued that their employees had been given jobs based on their professional experience and without regard for educational record.
Callahan was allowed to remain in her salaried position for months before she finally was asked to resign. No stories exist that correlate government fake degrees with any type of fines or jail time. Following a private degree mill study conducted by Government Computer News (GCN) journalists, government employees essentially lie when they list degrees from unaccredited universities. But the penalty for being found out is limited to “’discipline or removal.’”
How do high-level employees get away with fake degrees? Factors related to punishment and education contribute, but still leave the public at large dubious about the integrity of elite professionals. How could a security professional not question degrees handed out for life experience?