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Who Gets Phony Degrees and Diplomas?

Drawing Illegal Immigrants and High-Level Professionals

The array of shoppers that actually buys a fake degree or pays for a quick “life experience” degree is a bit unsettling. Degrees conferred for supposed life and work experiences come in all educational levels, from Associate’s to Doctorate, and in all fields—chemistry, engineering, even medicine and law.

According to CNN, bogus degrees and diploma mills are as much about criminal activity as they are about duping naïve professionals. Diploma mills unabashedly confer degrees in every field to illegal immigrants that need to work and live, professionals shopping for a quick and easy promotion, and even to potentially dangerous terrorists also looking for an advantage.

It doesn’t help to discover that even employees in high-level government jobs boast degrees from diploma mills. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security stirred up media buzz when Laura Callahan, a Chief Information Officer, was found to have three phony degrees listed on her resume.

Other alarming degree violators include the military, college athletics and professionals at every level of business and industry.

What’s Being Done?

The legal system, when it comes to the diploma mill business, is reactive. It takes a high-profile case like the Laura Callahan debacle to raise eyebrows. Of course, such a situation exposed in federal government is embarrassing. A valid question may be: If the Department of Homeland Security is unable to police their own employees, how can they be reliable when it comes to policing terrorists? What if high-level employers chose to keep such embarrassing situations hush-hush? Squelched information in the end only prolongs illegal practices. An informed public may be outraged and shocked, even fearful; reactions that are a crucial component in the design and implementation of effective laws.

We are likely at a point in the lifecycle of degree mills where there exists enough public knowledge that with each new offense comes a sharper rebuke and promises of stricter laws. But in the meantime, the best defense may be consumer awareness. Educate wannabe students on the dangers of “life experience” degrees and give employers the tools to effectively evaluate potential employees and some bogus degree practices may drop.

Background Checks

In efforts to boost public awareness of diploma mills and fake degree businesses, government entities like the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Education have devoted significant chunks of their websites to educational material on bogus college degrees.

The FTC targets decision-makers in business and industry to try and head off bad hiring decisions where possible fake degree holders may exist. Their material aims to underscore “red flags” on resumes that could be indicators of illegitimate credentials. Most employers claim to conduct in-depth background checks when they hire new employees, but this is often inconsistent, especially among small businesses. And some background checks deliver limited data, occasionally culled from the wrong sources.

Crime and Punishment

Diploma mills are subject to weak laws in part due to their classification as white collar crime. No one dies, and historically where no horrific crime is committed to outrage the general public, offenders are penalized with nothing more than a good rap on the knuckles. The incentive to try and outwit employers, educators and even government officials is not remarkably offset by a strong legal punishment. Make the practice of passing off fake diplomas a major offense and many individuals—regardless of their incentive—may think twice.

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