Thursday, January 01, 2004
The phony degree industry is exploding in Nevada and beyond
By Larry Wills
Frustrated by the obstacles of higher education--grade points, attendance and those irritating research papers? Why not go online instead and just buy a degree? Pay a little extra and you've become a magna cum laude. Even a doctorate will only set you back $1,000 or so.
Unaccredited schools lure students to convert their life skills into college credits, giving them a neat-looking diploma with a believable name, York University, Alameda College, Lexington University, Barrington University or the University of Homeland Security. If you have no life skills, that's okay. Just send money.
John Bear, a communication professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been researching the schools, says the cottage industry is exploding. "Three years ago there were $200 million in degree sales," Bear says. "Now, one phony school alone operating in Romania took in $400 million this year. About 500,000 people are holding phony degrees."
Latvia is home to another 100 operators. But the diploma mills are often much closer to home. One such school, Bernadean University, operated in Van Nuys, Calif., and Las Vegas for years. "They never had authority to grant degrees," he says. Six months ago, the Federal Trade Commission reportedly started investigating Degrees R-Us, another Las Vegas operation, as a diploma mill. It is no longer listed in the phone book.
When LaSalle University in Mandeville, La., was shut down by the FBI eight years ago, Bear says officials thought that was the end of it. But its founder set up a new diploma mill, called Acton University, from his prison cell in Beaumont, Texas. Columbia State University, also in Louisiana, was recently closed after 10 years of bilking students. At LaSalle, Bear says, "they found $35 million in bank deposits and $10 million in current accounts." LaSalle students reportedly signed a disclaimer that they were knowingly attending an unaccredited school.
Phony degrees impress many in the private sector who rarely pick up the phone to verify the credentials. "It's amazing how little checking is done," Bear says. "They're clueless."
Bear surveyed personnel managers on which schools impressed them. "We gave a list of 10 schools, five of them fake, and asked which ones they were likely to accept. Columbia State came out better than the accredited schools."
Even the accreditation process is suspect. Bear says the World Association of Universities and Colleges in Henderson accredits diploma mills. "It's just a mail drop," he says. "That has misled more people than anything else." Maxine Asher, who reportedly operates the Henderson business, did not return phone calls.
"They're ruining it for good schools," says, Bear, who believes diploma mills place a pall on legitimate distance learning institutions.
UNLV spokesman Tom Flagg concurs. He says UNLV provides bona fide distance learning classes, which are accredited, but the perception of abuse in the industry hurts everyone. "They make us look bad," he says.
Employers may not be the only victims of diploma mills. The students themselves may be deceived into thinking the colleges are legitimate. Sally St. John, a longtime drug counselor and local television personality, says she was lured into getting her doctorate in psychology from LaSalle because it claimed to be a faith-based school.
"I wanted a Christian-based college," she recalls. "I paid several thousand dollars and went to them for two years. I worked my ass off and was told LaSalle was a fully accredited college. I had 10 or 12 textbooks and had a dissertation to complete and defend. They made me rewrite it and rewrite it. Then I found out they lied about their accreditation, but I was told the Ph.D. was still valid." She says she hired a lawyer, who told her she couldn't sue since her degree technically was from an accredited school.
St. John, who appears on KVVU Fox 5 on Wednesday mornings, providing advice to viewers on a number of issues, also runs the Center for Holistic Rehabilitation. When LaSalle was shut down, St. John insists it was the students who were the losers. "I feel for the people who were the victims."
She believes the experience has tainted other distance learning programs. "It's a shame. Good quality distance programs provide an opportunity for those who cannot get away from home. It's a great opportunity." And she's bitter about being associated with schools that sell degrees without academic requirements. "What really upsets me is that there are people who did nothing."
Another common ploy is to disguise phony degrees under the name of a bona fide college. "It's much harder to get a handle on a degree from a real school," Bear says. Some individuals actually travel to the location of the college and mail phony transcripts to potential employers who see nothing wrong with the documents because of the postmark.
Flagg says university officials go to great lengths to identify phony instructors. "They are required to provide transcripts that come directly from the institution. We also are talking to colleagues and checking references. We do call back." Flagg also thinks that falsified credentials would show up during the interview process. "We are stricter than some universities. Ours is a pretty good system."
But it could be better. A University of Nevada School of Medicine official was recently forced to resign after she allegedly falsely claimed she had an MBA, and a study skills instructor at CCSN alleged he had a doctorate from San Diego State, which did not offer a degree in that field.
The federal government doesn't escape the scams either. Bear says a woman in the Department of Homeland Security was found to have three fake degrees while 200 employees in other agencies had falsified their credentials.
This year, the Nevada Legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor to grant or use misleading educational credentials. Violators could face a $2,500 fine. Whether that will deter scams is debatable, since higher education degrees can command substantial pay raises.
Particularly troublesome are those claiming to be qualified in the medical field. Despite rigid standards by the state's board of medical examiners and psychological examiners, there is little control over those who skirt licensing rules. They can buy a phony degree or create their own documents, print them out and hang them on the wall.
In other words, anyone can practice medicine till he or she gets caught. Two recent cases point to glaring holes in the process. Andrew Elias Michael, who ran a clinic in Henderson, is awaiting trial after he was indicted for practicing medicine without a license. The prosecution alleges he was treating patients and giving injections while a medical student at St. Luke's Medical School, an unaccredited institution in Liberia. Weeks after Michael's arrest, Shahid Sheikh, a Seattle counselor, was being investigated on whether he improperly administered flu shots in Henderson. No charges have been filed against him.
Larry Matheis, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association, blames the recent doctor shortage on an influx of unlicensed practitioners. Last year, 312 physicians left the state because of soaring malpractice insurance costs, leaving Nevada "under-doctored." Of those who moved to the state, he says, 70 percent went to places other than Southern Nevada. Despite its population increase, Nevada had a net increase of only two doctors last year. He says that creates an opportunity for phony doctors to fill the gap. "This is dangerous," Matheis says.
Christie Smith, spokeswoman for the state board of psychological examiners, says her agency conducts checks on people claiming to be qualified counselors, but that it's dependent on public complaints. "We search through phone books to ensure phonies are not there. But most times we don't have any way of knowing about them if people don't tell us."
Lynnette Krotke, spokeswoman for the state board of medical examiners, says it's the same situation with the medical examiners. "If we see something strange, we will check it out. The problem is we don't have jurisdiction over lay people. The public should call the medical board to ensure a doctor is licensed."
Tom Sergeant, from the attorney general's office, which prosecutes such cases, urges people not to hesitate to call. "Public safety concerns us greatly," he says.
Bear also suggests patients get up front with their doctor. "There's no harm in asking, 'Excuse me, where did you get your M.D.?'"