The Internet not only provides a safe haven for bogus degree suppliers, but it has also become quite accessible for the study of search data. The business of Internet search and paid advertising offers up a candid, and at times confusing, glimpse into the search habits of online users and the marketing strategies of online businesses of any kind, including real and fake colleges degree programs.
In the article, “Why Current Laws on Diploma Mills Are Too Lax,” we support the notion that many consumers are actually persuaded to believe that their work and life experiences serve to equal the academic rigors of a college degree. Online advertising methods do little to separate the wheat from the chaff in the diploma mill realm, which makes it increasingly more challenging to educate the public.
Using the Google Keyword Tool, you can see the types of seaches people are using. If you enter the phrase "fake degree", some of the following related phrases will also be displayed, showing that a healthy number of people do seek these services. Try it yourself.
What this illustrates is that there are a formidable number of online users shopping for information on fake degrees. Their actual buying intentions are unclear. However, what’s interesting to consider are the online paid advertising habits of some of the unaccredited degree institutions.
Google Adwords, one of the leading online paid marketing programs, allows advertisers to bid for popular search keywords, commonly searched phrases that command stiff prices for an advertising top spot. Some colleges and universities have made this a part of their marketing strategy. But what consumers don’t know may mislead them. A mix of legitimate online universities as well as unaccredited degree suppliers usually comprises the top 10 paid advertisement positions for some of the leading key phrases relative to online college degrees.
But depending upon their internet savvy, even the most smarmy of degree mills can show up among the regular search results, as well, along with legitimate colleges.
Kennedy-Western University (renamed Warren National University) has argued for its integrity as a serious distance learning institution ever since it locked legal horns with the State of Oregon on diploma mill definitions and free speech laws. Oregon—one of the most aggressive states in dealing with diploma mills—alleged KWU to be a degree mill. In an effort to stem the use of unaccredited degrees, Oregon created a law that made it illegal for individuals to use an unaccredited degree—like one from KWU—for professional or educational gain. KWU argued in its defense and that of a few of its graduates. It ultimately convinced a court that Oregon trampled on free speech laws and the personal rights of Oregon residents. The state was ordered to revise its law. Individuals had a right to use an unaccredited degree, but must disclose it as unaccredited. Since then, KWU has changed its name and claims to have applied for accreditation.
With all this brouhaha over educational integrity, however, it’s at least interesting to note that as part of KWU’s online marketing strategy, keywords associated with defunct diploma mills comprise part of the paid advertising campaign. Search Google for Pickering University, an unaccredited college and alleged diploma mill that was closed by the Hawaiian government, and at the top of the Google search page is a sponsored ad by KWU using the keywords “pickering university” to net customers. KWU also holds a top spot with the term “brighton university,” yet another unaccredited degree supplier that was closed by Hawaiian authorities.
KW also shows up in the first 10 sponsored ads for searches related to “novelty degrees,” “life experience degrees,” and “fake college degrees.” To be fair, University of Phoenix also uses the headline “life experience degree” and is a top bidder for “replica degree.” As if that doesn’t confuse the issue even more. This kind of strategy on the part of U of P may be why the Department of Education slapped them with a multi-million dollar fine for aggressive advertising.
How do online college degree programs, both accredited and non-, argue for integrity and the privilege to be taken as seriously as traditional colleges when their online marketing tactics suggest anything but integrity? Disappointingly enough, it’s not just the alleged degree mills trolling for customers in the fake degree realm.
At one time a .edu extension was solely populated by authentic educational entities. Welcome to the world of domain name real estate. Due to the overwhelming commoditization of the Internet, the value of established and reputable domain names cannot be overlooked. The buying and selling of domains is similar to the commodities market in the financial sector. In short, don’t trust a site just because it sports a .edu extension. Case in point: Washington International University (washint.edu) has an educational domain registration address in Pennsylvania. This institution makes it onto the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization (ODA) list of Unaccredited Colleges and a similar list maintained by the state of Maine. According to the ODA, WIU is “operating illegally in Pennsylvania according to the PA Department of Education.” This .edu does not equal authoritative or legitimate.
Life experience, novelty or replica, however you word it—the degrees are useless. Unfortunately a combination of smart advertising and lack of widespread consumer awareness make it easy for degree mills to conduct business and profit.