If only preventing fake degrees and fraudulent instructors were as easy as unearthing this University of Rochester prankster, who recently masqueraded as a chemistry professor and announced that over half of the class was failing. (A few minutes later, the real professor walked into the lecture hall, demanding: “Who the hell are you?”)
The difficult truth is that there are more people out there with fake degrees—and doctorates—than you might think. Retired FBI agent and co-author of Degree Mills, Alan Ezell, has been investigating diploma mills for decades and calls the situation a world crisis—estimating that more than half of the people in America claiming a new PhD have purchased the title from a fake institution. He has calculated that around 3,300 unrecognized ‘universities’ exist.
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Diploma mills sell personalized degree certificates that look authentic with embossed lettering and institutional seals. An accompanying transcript is an upsell. They’re also not terribly costly in terms of money or time: journalists at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently purchased three PhDs for $1,550 each without doing any coursework or submitting a resume, as well as another business owner who claims he was duped. (Any doubt that diploma mills aren’t selective about their “students” can be eliminated on Wikipedia’s ‘List of animals with fraudulent diplomas’ page.)
In the knowledge business, reputation is crucial. But a simple LinkedIn search can uncover dozens of professionals claiming credentials from known diploma mills, some of them long-time professors and program directors. CBC researchers even found one professor who “graduated” from one diploma mill, Almeda, who has taught at major universities and colleges in southern Ontario.
Many of the names are similar to legitimate institutions. For instance, Columbia State University, closed in 1998 by a court order, sounds like but is in no way affiliated with Columbia College in New York City. But when diploma mills are forced to close, many simply re-open in a new location under a different name. They’re even “accredited” by fake accreditation agencies.
In the past, legitimate schools with instructors holding fraudulent credentials have defended their hires, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But universities could do more to ensure they don’t take on bogus instructors.
Here’s how hiring managers can identify tell-tale signs and work towards preventing fake degrees from diploma mills:
- The official college address is a P.O. Box. Diploma mills usually have no physical address.
- Ask the candidate questions about his or her dissertation research and experiences in graduate school. Fake universities will award degrees based on “life experience” rather than academic merit.
- Employ a third-party, trusted screening provider to confirm a candidate’s degree type and date of completion. These firms have up-to-date databases of legitimate educational institutions across the world.
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