It's been ten years now since I completed my research into bogus credentials in the safety and health field. I discovered back then that at least three percent of all doctorate degrees in occupational safety and health and related areas came from either a diploma mill or a degree mill. I couldn't determine how many bachelor and master degrees were obtained by this route, but the number was likely in the hundreds.

I wasn't alone in my findings that fake degrees were especially sought after by people in the safety and health field. The authors of "Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud" (Stewart and Spille, 1988) observed this as well, and voiced concern for the public's health and safety. Some simple definitions are in order: ·

  • A diploma mill is a school (actually a business) that will sell you a degree or diploma without much effort, such as writing a ten-page report to get a doctorate degree. ·
  • A degree mill is a school that actually requires some work, but significantly less work than is required at a traditional college or university.

In each case, the degree may be obtained quickly and cheaply without attending any regular classes, and you can get credit for "life experiences" and anything else the school thinks will justify giving you the degree.

It's important to note, however, that these "schools" may not be breaking any laws. Unfortunately some states are so lax in their laws that practically anyone can set up a business, call it a school, and sell degrees. There are approximately 250 "legal" degree mills currently in the U.S. Degree mills are very skilled at playing a word and legal game in making themselves appear legitimate.

Meeting a need

If anything, I think the prevalence of bogus degrees has probably grown in the safety and health field in the past decade. Some people have been forced to look at non-traditional forms of education due to skyrocketing costs of graduate school programs. Plus, as more professionals go into consulting, there's pressure to add that Ph.D. credential to help market services. Is there anything wrong with this picture?

First of all, it would be interesting to probe the psyche of each person who obtains a degree from a mill. Is it really legitimate in their mind, and do they care if anyone else thinks it's legitimate?

Second, why do degree mills target people in the safety and health field?

Third, many people in the safety and health field argue about bogus certifications. Why has there been limited discussion about the profession's most important credential, the college degree?

Fourth, can professional associations prohibit their members from citing a degree from a mill as one of their credentials?

And, fifth, do employers really care where a person in the safety and health field got their degree(s)?

I'll give you my opinion on these questions.

Personal encounters

I started researching bogus credentials because I worked with people who obtained doctorate degrees in safety and health from degree mills. These were not bad people. In fact, they were very likable. I believe they genuinely felt they earned the degree, but I also think they felt most people around them were stupid and would accept the degree as genuine.

Unsuspecting audience

I believe degree mills target the safety and health field because they see a group of people seeking recognition and praise, and feel they are easily duped. It must be true or they wouldn't keep advertising these degrees. Most people in safety and health have limited knowledge about how college degrees are granted. For example, name the body that accredited the school that you graduated from. You can't do it, can you? Guess what, everyone assumes their school is legitimate.

Certifications seem like an easier target to criticize. I'm a CIH, CSP, CHMM. Which one let me pass with less than 50 percent correct on my comprehensive exam? The answer may surprise you. There is a degree mill that started many certifications in the safety and health field, but that's another story. Maybe people in the safety and health field are not so knowledgeable on professional certifications, either.

Professional associations could prohibit members from citing a degree from a mill as one of their credentials, but they probably feel it's not worth the legal effort, time and costs to do it. The National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review states that citing a Ph.D. or other degree from a degree mill is unethical.

Do employers really care where someone got their safety and health degree? I don't think most employers, even the largest and most sophisticated, can distinguish the quality, or lack thereof, of safety and health degrees. This could be the major reason why safety and health degrees from mills continue to exist. Plus, people in the safety and health field don't seem to care. Many times I've raised concerns and never have I heard any major indignation from professionals.

To close, let's consider the case where a contractor building the GM Saturn plant died because an ersatz (artificial and inferior substitute) bolt snapped. The investigation into his death found that the bolt was counterfeit and substandard. It looked like the real thing but was made of cheap metal, not the specified high-quality carbon steel. Determining beyond doubt an ersatz bolt from a quality one, though, causes a dilemma. It must be done using metallurgical tests and analyzing a single 40-cent bolt can cost $200. This is an analogy to safety and health degrees that come from mills. They look the same, but will they perform as good as higher quality degrees? Someone out there is betting their life on it. For now, however, we have a dilemma. It may simply be too expensive to determine a quality safety and health degree from an ersatz one.