Degree mills have been around for hundreds of years, and they are still flourishing all over the world. During the 1980s, the number of phony schools significantly diminished as a result of the "DipScam" diploma-mill task force of the FBI. Its work, described below, helped secure indictments and, in most cases, convictions of a great many people who operated scores of phony colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, the trend has reversed and things are getting worse. With the winding down of DipScam in the early 1990s, and the advent of inexpensive laser printers, color copiers, overnight delivery services, 800, 888, 877, and 500 telephone numbers, faxes, computer bulletin boards, and other accessible technology—most significantly the growth of the Internet—diploma mills have made a real comeback, both in the United States and in Europe.
There are now dozens of places where one can buy Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorates, even law and medical degrees, with no questions asked, on payment of fees of anywhere from one dollar to several thousand. To demonstrate this, John purchased (for $53) an extremely authentic-looking law degree (Doctor of Jurisprudence) of Harvard University, from an outfit in Florida that has been advertising nationally, complete with an 800 phone number. Their ads have run for at least four years, and they even have a little retail establishment where they print diplomas while you wait. Transcripts are available as well. And no, we will not provide the address, or those of any other illegal schools. We have no wish to give them business. And our lawyer has advised us that we could be considered "accessories before the fact" should someone buy a fake degree and use it to defraud others. (We will, of course, cooperate with law enforcement officers and bona fide investigative reporters.)
One of the main reasons that fake schools continue to exist is that it is difficult to legally define exactly what is meant by the term "diploma mill" or "degree mill." Surely any school that will send you a Ph.D. by return mail on payment of $100, no questions asked, is a fraud. But what about a school that requires a five-page dissertation before awarding the Doctorate? How about 20 pages? 50? 100? 200? Who is to say? One man's degree mill is another man's alternative university. And nobody seems to want the government stepping in to evaluate doctoral dissertations before permitting schools to grant degrees. Would you want [insert the name of your least-favorite politician] grading your thesis?
Another large gray area is the one dealing with religious schools. Because constitutional safeguards in the United States guarantee separation of church and state, most states have been reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches -- including their right to grant degrees to all who make an appropriately large donation. In many states, religious schools are not regulated but are restricted to granting religious degrees. But in some, like Louisiana and Hawaii, if you established your own one-person church yesterday, you could start your university today and award a Ph.D. in nuclear physics tomorrow.
Many states say that religious schools can only grant religious degrees. A diploma mill in Louisiana took that argument to new limits, when they announced that because God created everything, no matter what you studied, it was the study of the work of God, and therefore a religious degree. Twice, the Louisiana courts upheld this argument!
Why Are Degree Mills Allowed to Operate?
The answer is that, as just indicated, it is almost impossible to write a law that will discriminate clearly between legitimate schools and mills. Any law that tries to define something that is subjective -- obscenity, pornography, threatening behavior, or the quality of a school -- is bound to be controversial. There can never be a quantitative means for, in effect, holding a meter up to a school and saying, "This one scores 83; it's legitimate. That one scores 62; it's a degree mill."
Also, degree mills that do not muddy their own local waters, but sell their products only in other states or other countries, are more likely to get away with it longer. A goodly number of degree mills have operated from England, selling their product only to people in other countries (primarily the United States, Africa, and Asia). Many British authorities seem not to care as long as the only victims are foreigners, and authorities in the United States find it virtually impossible to take action against foreign businesses.
After decades of debating these matters (even Prince Charles made a speech about the diploma-mill problem), Britain has taken two tiny steps. Step one is to forbid unrecognized schools to call themselves a "University." However, this law had been in effect for about three minutes when one of England's leading diploma mills" the Sussex College of Technology, found the loophole. The law declares that it pertains to everyone enrolling after April 1, 1989. Sussex immediately began offering to backdate applications to March 31,1989, which appears not to be illegal. They are still getting away with this ploy. Step two is to require that unrecognized schools must say in their literature that they do not operate under a Royal Charter or an Act of Parliament (the two ways schools become legitimately recognized in Britain). This, however, is unlikely even to be noticed by degree-buyers in other lands.
Other states and jurisdictions have tried to craft laws that would permit legitimate nontraditional schools to operate while eliminating degree mills. For instance, for many years California had a law that stated that the main requirement for being authorized by the state to grant degrees was ownership of $50,000 worth of real property. That law was apparently passed to eliminate low-budget fly-by-night degree mills. But $50,000 ain't what it used to be, and from the 1960s through the early 1980s, dozens of shady operators declared that their home or their book collection was worth $50,000 and proceeded to sell degrees with wild abandon.
In 1978, John had the pleasure of advising the "60 Minutes" people from CBS on which California "universities" they might wish to send Mike Wallace in to expose. The proprietor of California Pacifica University was actually arrested while Wallace was interviewing him, and soon after pleaded guilty to multiple counts of mail fraud, and went off to federal prison. Two years later, California Pacifica was still listed in the state's official publication, the Directory of California Educational Institutions.
California, thankfully, has tightened things up considerably since then, by eliminating the "authorized" category, and adding requirements that there must be elements of instruction provided by state-approved schools. Once again, of course, we have a law trying to define subjective matters.
In 1990, John had the further pleasure of appearing on the nationally syndicated program "Inside Edition" to help expose yet another major degree mill, North American University. Its proprietor, Edward Reddeck, who had previously been to prison for running another fake school, was convicted on multiple counts of mail and wire (telephone) fraud, and sent to federal prison for a few years.
Another reason for the proliferation of degree mills in the past is that the wheels of justice ground very slowly, when they ground at all. Dallas State College was shut down by authorities in Texas in 1975. The same perpetrators almost immediately opened up as Jackson State University in California. When the post office shut off their mail there, they resurfaced with John Quincy Adams University in Oregon. It took 12 more years and a major effort by the FBI before the Dallas State perpetrators were finally brought to justice in a federal courtroom in North Carolina in late 1987, nearly two decades and millions of dollars in revenues after they sold their first Doctorate. And when the FBI, the IRS and the postal inspectors raided a diploma mill in Louisiana in 1995, where they recovered more than $10 million in cash, the page-one newspaper account at the time said that these agencies had spent more than five years preparing for their visitation.
The entry of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the diploma-mill arena changed the rules of the game. In the late 1970s, the agency launched an operation called DipScam (for Diploma Scam), which methodically investigated degree-granting institutions from coast to coast and abroad, with some cooperation from Scotland Yard and other foreign authorities as well.
John consulted with the FBI on matters of degree mills from 1979 until 1992, when arch diploma-mill exposer Special Agent Allen Ezell retired, and DipScam wound down.
The FBI looked into hundreds of nonaccredited schools. Some were found to be harmless, innocuous, even good, and no actions were taken. When there was evidence of chicanery, a search warrant was issued, and FBI vans hauled off tons of papers and records. In many cases, but not all, a federal grand jury handed down indictments. And when they did, in many cases, the indictees pleaded guilty to mail or wire (telephone) fraud, and received fines and sentences in federal prison.
The wording of the federal grand jury indictments is quite wonderful. Here is a sample, from one indictment. (This is just a small excerpt from a thick document.)
SCHEME AND ARTIFICE: Count One: That from some unknown time prior to, on, or about [date) and continuing through some unknown time after [date] within the Western District of North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States, [defendants] did knowingly, intentionally, and unlawfully combine, conspire, confederate and agree with each other and with others to the Grand jurors both known and unknown, to commit offenses against the United States, that is, having devised and intending to devise a scheme and artifice to defraud and for obtaining money by false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises, for the purpose of executing said scheme and artifice to defraud and attempting to do so knowingly and intentionally placing and causing to be placed in a post office and an authorized depository for mail matter, and causing to be delivered by United States mail according to the direction thereon, matters and things to be sent and delivered by the United States Postal Service, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1341 and 2, and knowingly and intentionally transmitting and causing to be transmitted by means of wire communication in interstate commerce, certain signs, signals and sounds, to wit, interstate telephone conversations, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343.
In other words, they sent fake degrees by mail, and made interstate phone calls to their customers.
In its earlier days, DipScam went after the fake medical schools-the most dangerous degree-sellers of all. They were quickly able to shut down the two worst perpetrators, Johann Keppler School of Medicine and the United American Medical College, and send their respective founders to prison.
DipScam's largest case came to its grand finale in a federal courthouse in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October 1987, with John present as an expert witness and observer. On trial were the seven perpetrators of a long string of degree mills, most recently including Roosevelt University, Loyola University, Cromwell University, University of England at Oxford, Lafayette University, DePaul University, and Southern California University, as well as several fake accrediting agencies.
More than 100 witnesses were called over a two-and-a-half-week period, including many who established the substantial size and scope of bank deposits and investments made by the defendants. Witnesses from Europe testified to the mail-forwarding services the defendants used in England, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and elsewhere. The circus-like atmosphere was not helped by the fact that Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jessica Hahn, and company, were appearing in the courtroom right next door, and so the grounds of the courthouse were covered by photographers and reporters, none of whom took much interest in the DipScam trial.
Two of the minor players were dismissed by the judge for lack of definitive evidence, but the five main defendants were found guilty by the jury on all 27 counts of mail fraud, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to seven years.
Even though the DipScam project is no longer active, the FBI, the postal inspectors, and some crusading state agencies are still actively working to keep fake schools from operating and phony degrees from being sold.
Why Degree Mills Prosper
The main reason—really the only reason—for the success of degree mills (and drug dealers, and pornographers) is, of course, that people keep on buying their product. They crave the degrees and somehow, despite much evidence to the contrary, they really believe that they are going to get away with it.
Unfortunately, many newspapers and magazines continue to permit the perpetrators to advertise. At this writing, for instance, some of the biggest phony schools advertise in nearly every issue of The Economist USA Today, Forbes, Psychology Today, Inc., Discover, Investors Business Daily, the International Herald Tribune, regional editions of Time and Newsweek, and dozens of other publications that should know better.
Indeed they do know better. As a public service, we routinely write to such publications to suggest they are doing their readers a disservice by running these ads. With the exception of the Wall Street Journal, which promptly changed its policies, we have failed utterly. In 1997, USA Today told us they were going to change their policies, but they apparently changed their minds. The Economist even wrote to us to say that their readers were smart enough to make up their own minds. Then, when we tried to run a "Diploma Mill Alert" in The Economist it was rejected, because "We don't run ads critical of our advertisers."
There have been occasions in the past when a class-action suit filed on behalf of fraud victims also named the advertising medium where the fraud advertised. We can only hope that such a suit will attract the attention of the lawyers for other such publications.
Two Other Insidious Academic Frauds
In addition to those who sell fake degrees, two other "services" undermine the academic establishment.
One is the so-called "lost diploma replacement service. " If you tell them you had a legitimate degree but lost it, they will replace it for a modest fee. That's why John has a Harvard "Doctor of Neurosurgery" diploma hanging on his wall (next to his real Michigan State one).The Harvard phony sold for $49.95.When the FBI raided one such service, in Oregon (they had been advertising in national publications), they found thousands of blank diplomas from hundreds of schools-and records showing an alarmingly large number of clients. The Oregon service no longer advertises, but others crop up from time to time, such as the one from which John bought his Harvard law degree. Since the services require their clients to sign a disclaimer saying they really had the original degree, and since the diplomas come with a "Novelty Item" sticker (easy to peel off), the services may well be operating legally. On one occasion, at least, the justice Department was unable to get an indictment from a federal grand jury for these reasons.
The other is term-paper and dissertation-writing services. Several of them put out catalogs listing over a thousand already-written term papers they will sell; and if they don't already have what you want, they will write anything from a short paper to a major dissertation for you, for $7 to $10 a page.
An Emphatic Warning
We must warn you, as emphatically as we can, that it is very risky to buy a fake degree or to claim to have a degree that you have not earned. It is like putting a time bomb in your resumé. It could go off at any time, with dire consequences. The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily. And -- particularly if their "degree" is health-related -- their clients may be seriously harmed.
About the Authors
John B. Bear obtained his doctoral degree from the Michigan State University. Since 1974 he has devoted much of his time to investigating and writing about nontraditional higher education. In 1977, he established Degree Consulting Services to offer detailed advice to people seeking more personal advice than a book can provide. John's daughter Mariah earned her Master's degree in Journalism at New York University and is executive editor of Degree.net Books. This article is adapted from the 13th edition of Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally (Ten Speed Press, 1998). The book covers night and weekend colleges; foreign medical schools; degrees by Internet and other e-mail avenues; and other ways to acquire a bachelor's, master's, doctorate, law, or medical degree through some unconventional method. It also lists schools to be avoided, analyzes educational trends, and provides information on more than a thousand sources.
Other Articles by John Bear
- Diploma Mills: The $200- Million-a-Year Competitor You Didn't Know You Have
- Great Moments in Accreditation: The Case of IAC, ACI, and The Three Stooges
- How to Replace the Law Degree Your Dog Ate
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation (lists approved agencies)
- U.S. Department of Education (lists approved agencies)
- Bernadean University: A Mail-Order Diploma Mill
- Donsbach University
- GAO Report on Diploma Mills
- Citizens Against Bogus University Degrees
- Nonaccredited school and agencies
- Glossary of Dubious Credentials (to be posted)
- Individuals with Dubious Credentials
- Name It & Frame It? (discusses Christian degree mills)
- National Council Against Health Fraud Position Paper
- Oregon Student Assistance Commission, Office of Degree Authorization
- Publications that Accept Degree-Mill Ads (to be posted)
- Theologic Degree Mills
- Virtual Universities of Australasia and the World
- DegreeFinders.com: Help in finding suitable distance-learning programs
This report was revised on November 14, 2004.