WASHINGTON, D.C.— Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) today unveiled a General Accounting Office (GAO) report showing that federal agencies have used taxpayer dollars to purchase “diploma mill” degrees and that some high-ranking federal officials have listed diploma mill degrees on an official application or security clearance record. Diploma mills offer “degrees” for a flat fee and promote the award of academic credentials based on life experience and do not require classroom instruction. The report was requested by Chairman Collins and House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA).
The Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been investigating diploma mills for three years, is holding two days of hearings on the topic. Chairman Collins has long been concerned about the problems associated with diploma mill degrees. In 2001, she had asked the GAO to investigate how easy it is to purchase a degree from a diploma mill. As a result of that first investigation, the GAO purchased two bogus degrees in Senator Collins’ name—a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and a Master of Science degree in Medical Technology—along with a fake transcript, all from Lexington University for a cost of $1,515 for both degrees.
The GAO found that 28 high-ranking officials at eight federal agencies hold diploma mill degrees and that a total of 463 students at three unaccredited schools work for the federal government. In addition, data from just two unaccredited schools—Kennedy-Western University and California Coast University—revealed nearly $170,000 in tuition payments from the federal government.
“The findings of this GAO report are troubling. We have clear evidence that tax dollars are being wasted on bogus degrees from unaccredited institutions that the federal government does not even recognize. It is also cause for great concern that federal officials who hold high-ranking positions, and security clearances in some instances, have degrees from diploma mills,” said Chairman Collins. “It calls into question their qualifications and abilities to do their jobs,” she added.
Chairman Collins also pointed out that the GAO report provides only a snapshot of the problem since only a sample of federal employees and unaccredited institutions were examined, so the GAO’s findings are likely the “tip of the iceberg.”
Chairman Collins said that she is concerned that diploma mill degrees held by federal employees are unfair to those employees who work long and hard for legitimate degrees and who might get passed over for a raise or promotion based on an employer’s misunderstanding of what a diploma mill degree truly represents.
Diploma mills masquerade as legitimate institutions of higher learning, but the degrees they offer are awarded for a fee, not on the basis of substantial coursework or academic achievement. Many of these institutions allow “life experiences” to count as credit toward these bogus degrees. For example, Columbia State University permits keeping tropical fish, riding a horse, and designing a quilt as activities that count toward a degree.
These schools also can be highly profitable. Columbia State University, for example, took in roughly $18 million in an 18-month period.
In addition to her work to put a stop to federal dollars wasted on bogus degrees, Chairman Collins is working to ensure that employers and prospective students have access to information about accredited learning institutions. Specifically, Chairman Collins is urging the U.S. Department of Education to create an online list of accredited institutions and for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to better train federal agencies to recognize diploma mills.
Under current law, the federal government may not pay for “academic degrees” from an unaccredited school; it may, however, pay for an employee to take individual courses. These courses could inadvertently add up to a degree. As a result of the Committee’s investigation, the OPM is currently reviewing this loophole in the law as well as its hiring procedures and forms.
During the investigation, the Committee also discovered three checks from federal Head Start program grantees in three different states made out to Kennedy-Western University.
“We have discussed this matter with the Department of Health and Human Services, which acknowledges that it has not imposed controls on the training for which Head Start dollars can be used. While training is a very important component of Head Start, training at diploma mills is unacceptable,” said Senator Collins.