In the smarmy business of diploma mills, any legal opposition is, in large part, the responsibility of individual states. While the federal government has made certain to blanket the Department of Education’s website with comprehensive literature that warns of diploma mills and businesses selling fake diplomas and degrees, it does little legally to repel the business.
Since 2001, when Senator Susan Collins of Maine asked the U.S. General Accounting Office to investigate the ease by which one could purchase bogus degrees, only a handful of states have reacted. Maine is one of them. The GAO report revealed that undercover investigators bought a number of degrees along with degree verification services with relative ease. The verification service worked as promised. Investigators also requested a search of an online resume database that returned a query of those resumes that included names of reported diploma mill institutions. Over 200 resumes, culled from the larger search return, belonged to individuals who “held a position of trust and responsibility.” Sound alarming?
Legally speaking, fake degrees don’t kill, maim, or otherwise horrify the population at large, the typical ingredients for a harsh legal backlash. But states such as Oregon, North Dakota, Indiana, Wyoming, and New Jersey all believe there are dangers, not only to the respectability of higher education, but to the safety and security of their residents.
As of 2001, Hawaii was one of the biggest diploma mill playgrounds. The state reportedly had flimsy accreditation regulations and paid little attention to the growing business of degree fraud. A crop of low-quality and unaccredited “universities” took root on the islands, listed Hawaiian addresses, and ripped-off hundreds of consumers from all over the United States. The complaints took a few years to propagate through the state government and legal red tape, but by 2004 Hawaii was taking aim at the most notorious among the diploma mills. As proactive a move as this may seem, Hawaii is still labeled as one of the most problematic states.
By most accounts, Oregon has spearheaded the campaign to make diploma mills a thing of the past. The state is not only committed to defacing and debunking the business within its own borders, but it also makes no bones about outing those states most guilty of leniency. Students and employers would be well advised to bookmark the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization (ODA) website. The information ranges from general diploma mill fodder, to color-coded maps highlighting the areas of heaviest diploma mill business and unaccredited institutions.
But overzealousness can get states into legal trouble. When the ODA charged an unaccredited university within its state of being a diploma mill, the institution charged back with a lawsuit of its own. Kennedy Western University accused the ODA of defamation and meddling with free speech. Oregon law stipulates that individuals may not use unaccredited degrees as part of a job search. But following a persuasive hearing, KW and ODA settled. Oregon has since had to moderate its stance on unaccredited universities. The legislation is to be modified to instead stipulate that individuals may use unaccredited degrees to get ahead, but are obligated to reveal the accreditation status of the institution.
As of 2003, North Dakota made it illegal to “manufacture” fake diplomas and grant phony degrees. For businesses, the law may dish out penalties of up to $25,000 with a jail sentence. This is a greater incentive to get out for businesses, but for consumers shopping for such credentials the punishment remains a misdemeanor and that’s only if they are caught using such documentation for professional or business advancement. The North Dakota University System publishes a pamphlet, Is This a Real Degree, that helps students and employers figure out if a college degree is legitimate. The bulletin also summarizes the 2003 laws. Among the list of resources, NDUS lists the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization—one of the most proactive in the country.
Why are many states so lax in their laws? The victims of diploma mills show no signs of violence and the crimes are anything but horrific. Typically, to mitigate a hefty sign of legal action, a crime needs to horrify the public, generate a real fear before the legal system sends a clear message. In the case of diploma mills, the fallout is not enough. States have too many more pressing issues on their hands and tight budgets. In some cases it is the state educational review board, whose job it is to oversee higher education, that falls behind in its duties.
What is likely to impel more states to take notice is the situation facing Alabama. As states such as Wyoming, North Dakota, and Oregon have made it difficult at best for diploma mills to operate within their state bounds, such businesses have taken their wares to states with weak accreditation and fraud laws. Alabama has found itself to be one such hotbed for diploma mills. When Wyoming effectively chased the notorious Preston University from its turf, it was reported that the alleged diploma mill had chosen instead to set up house in unwitting Alabama.
What was the big change in Wyoming? It was a requirement that private colleges earn state accreditation.