According to John Bear, an expert on diploma mills, the business of bogus college degrees is anything but new.
A number of high-profile news stories have emerged in the last few years that serve to underscore the otherwise hidden problem, and this is just the tip of the iceberg say most experts.
College and university degrees have been valued for centuries. Where there is value, there is demand. Where real is out of reach, fakes and forgeries fill a void.
Bear estimates the diploma mill business includes well over 400 online sites that sell bogus novelty, replica, and authentic degrees, in combination with fraudulent diploma mills that pose as universities with viable degrees for sale. Such businesses, he says, rake in over $500 million dollars a year.
In the U.S. a college degree is almost a requirement to get ahead professionally. In a news bulletin released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the results of recent data offer a clear measurement of the value of both a high school diploma as well as a four-year college degree:
This data provides hard evidence of the incentives that drive consumers and workers to seek a degree. Does this necessarily mean that everyone shops for fake degrees? Diploma mills appeal to busy professionals and adult workers who really need a professional break. They are persuaded to believe that their life experience and professional training already qualifies them for a degree, either Associate’s, Bachelo’rs, Master’s and even a Ph.D. As unlikely as this seems to those on the outside looking in, the sales pitch works for a shocking number of Americans who hold positions at all levels of business and industry.
Motivated students have many avenues that may lead them to a degree, but a legitimate degree requires time and hard work. For many consumers and wannabe students, the allure of a degree earned either based on life experience or a high-quality replica bought from an online website is a bit too attractive.
As if the financial draw of having a college degree were not enough to give diploma mills a toehold, state laws and regulations have historically presented little challenge to low-quality and fraudulent degree suppliers. During the 80s, the FBI was immersed in what was called Dipscam. The operation successfully stemmed the propagation of diploma mills at the headwaters of the Internet Age. But by the mid 90s, the Feds had closed up shop and for all intents and purposes, would no longer police the diploma mills. Into the vacuum were sucked dozens, then hundreds, of more sophisticated degree suppliers.
Since then the growth of low quality, fraudulent, and bogus degree suppliers have confounded lawmakers, employers, and legitimate colleges and universities. Particularly affected have been online degree programs that have only recently earned respect for commitment to their students’ needs and the ability to deliver high-quality distance learning programs.
Outside the U.S. the desire for a college degree is felt no less. News reports support the widespread commoditization of fake diplomas, especially in regions of the world where good and well-paying jobs are limited, and come with degree requirements. In some countries where government corruption may be an issue, some reports reveal an astounding number of employees in positions of power sport bogus educational credentials. A news report out of Kenya underscores the prevalence of military police personnel that beefed up employment credentials with phony university “certificates.” In fact, the better part of Kenya’s Parliament was found to be riddled with fraudulent degree claims.
But there are more elusive diploma mills. The Internet makes fake degrees a worldwide business, no longer the exclusive domain of world powers or confined to a website. Take Harrington University. In an article that followed the lead of an email scam, Wired magazine chased down the degree mill. There is no physical evidence of such a school, save for the initial email, and a follow-up call in which the writer for Wired was invited to buy any level of degree she wanted for $1400.
Beyond the unaccredited diploma mills that have settled like dust in about 40 states and the hundreds of online fake degree sites, there are likely hundreds more like Harrington that occupy no physical space, but yet deliver “authentic” degrees in any flavor in exchange for a quick thousand.