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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Diploma mill denial?

December 1, 2004
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You should know that several government investigations into the educational qualifications of individuals in safety-sensitive jobs could affect the credibility of our profession.

The U.S. General Accounting Office began investigating so-called diploma mills after the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The Act amended laws to prohibit the government from reimbursing the costs of academic degree training to federal employees or contractors if the training comes from an unaccredited institution.

Diploma mills are defined by the GAO as “nontraditional, unaccredited, post-secondary schools that offer degrees for a relatively low flat fee, promote the award of academic credit based on life experience, and do not require any classroom instruction.” Diploma mills (or degree mills) might also be defined as “substandard or fraudulent ‘colleges’ that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work.” The government also refers to degrees from diploma mills as “bogus” and “phony.”

The GAO’s investigation into diploma mills discovered many so-called bogus environmental health and safety degrees. People using these degrees include a NASA contract employee responsible for safety engineering and a program manager who claimed a doctorate in occupational health and safety and who helped coordinate responses to the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax contamination at the Capitol. Nine employees within the Environmental Protection Agency were found with bogus degrees. And the GAO says it only investigated the “tip of the iceberg.”

In September 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General conducted a “diploma mill” audit using representative sampling at two of its facilities. At one facility the audit uncovered a contract employee pursing a doctorate degree in safety engineering. At the other facility the DOE found a contract employee that had a BS and MS degrees in environmental safety and health. Beyond the IG audit, one of the DOE facilities found an employee who was reimbursed for coursework toward a doctorate in safety engineering.

Open book testing

Here’s an example of the type of education that can be found at a diploma mill. As part of the government’s investigation, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, assigned to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, enrolled in a diploma mill to conduct a first-hand evaluation of the quality of education. She enrolled seeking an MS degree in environmental engineering.

Although the investigator had no formal engineering training, the few seminars she attended on oil spill response and boat accident investigation while on duty with the Coast Guard counted 43 percent toward her degree requirements from the school. The rest of the degree requirements would come from writing a paper worth 12 credits and completing five course topics such as hazardous waste management, which meant taking an open book test of 100 multiple-choice questions. Using the book glossary, the investigator says she was able to “find exam answers without having read a single chapter of the text.”

She told the Senate committee she learned “very little” taking courses, and her findings were backed up by a former admissions counselor for the school, who stated during the hearings that “anything you learn there can be learned by buying a book and reading it on your own.”

Strong words

In May 2004, Kay James, director of U.S. Office of Personnel Management, sent a memo to all department and agency heads with the subject: “Strengthening Oversight of the Use of Diploma Mill Credentials in Federal Employment.” The memo stated, “Our position is clear: There is no place in Federal employment for degrees or credentials from diploma mills. Individuals may not use bogus degrees to qualify for federal jobs or promotions; agencies may not send employees to diploma mills for degree training or other forms of education; and agencies may not reimburse employees for tuition or repay their student loans if the training came from a diploma mill.”

Jack Marshall, an ethicist and attorney, and president of ProEthics, is among the growing number of people who are now using harsh words to describe people who use a diploma mill degree. Marshall says, “The job holder (with a diploma mill degree) has either lied, or not taken the necessary steps to ensure the integrity of his or her own education… or is so incredibly lazy and gullible that he ought not to be trusted in a high level job.” Marshall says there should be no tolerance for fake credentials.

Pandora’s Box

Our government is defining and identifying diploma mills. And they are clearly taking a position on the matter. But the EHS community does not seem to share the concern. The Board of Certified Safety Professionals has taken the stand that using doctorate degrees from several diploma mills does not violate a CSP’s “code of ethics.” And other EHS-certifying organizations, such as those representing the CIH and CHMM, have “not taken a position” on their certificate holders using a diploma mill degree.

As the government controls diploma mill abuse within its house, the problem will grow elsewhere, such as private industry and consulting. No one in the EHS field wants to open Pandora’s Box and address what could be a widespread credibility issue.

SIDEBAR: Want to learn more?

Excellent sources of information on diploma mills are available on the Internet:

  • Oregon Student Assistance Commission, Office of Degree Authorization, www.osac.state.or.us/oda/

  • elearners.com, www.elearners.com/resources/diploma-mills.asp

  • Government Accounting Office Report GAO-03-269R “Purchases of Degrees from Diploma Mills,” www.gao.gov

  • Government Accounting Office Report GAO-04-771T “Diploma Mills: Federal Employees Have Obtained Degrees,” www.gao.gov

  • “Some federal workers have fake degrees,” Associated Press, May 11, 2004, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4951979/

  • Office of Personnel Management, “Strengthening Oversight of the Use of Diploma Mill Credentials in Federal Employment,” www.opm.gov/Strategic_Management_of_Human_Capital/Guidance/2004/05-13-04DiplomaMill.asp

  • “Top officials hold fake degrees,” CBS News, May 10, 2004, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/10/eveningnews/main616664.shtml
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