Lawmakers consider legislation to close diploma-mill loophole

Senate lawmakers said Wednesday that they want to pass new legislation to close a loophole that allows "diploma mills" to take advantage of federal regulations and charge the government for questionable academic degrees.

Diploma mills -- organizations that in effect sell degrees and require little or no coursework -- have been sharply criticized over the past two days during Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings. A General Accounting Office review of eight federal agencies revealed Tuesday that hundreds of employees are enrolled in diploma mills, and at least 28 senior federal executives list fraudulent degrees on their resumes. The government has paid about $170,000 to two diploma mills whose records were obtained by GAO investigators.

Federal agencies are prohibited from paying for degrees from nonaccredited academic institutions, but some employees circumvent the restriction by receiving reimbursement for individual courses.

"The fact is, though, we know that loophole has been exploited," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's chairwoman. "We think that a law change may well be needed," because it is "unacceptable that a single dollar [of federal money] is going to diploma mills, much less hundreds of thousands."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., urged quick action and noted that several senior managers with national security responsibilities were in possession of diploma mill degrees.

"The public interest may be at risk here," he said.

Stephen Benowitz, the Office of Personnel Management's associate director for human resources products and services, told the committee he did not believe a new law was necessary. OPM recently alerted agencies to be on the lookout for bogus degrees and to make certain that they are not accepted.

"We believe that is sufficient to ensure that agencies are put on notice," Benowitz said. He told Collins, however, that OPM would work with the committee to ensure that proper action is taken.

At Wednesday's hearing, new revelations surfaced from a Coast Guard officer who enrolled in a diploma mill as part of the investigation.

Lt. Cmdr. Claudia Gelzer told lawmakers that she enrolled last year at Kennedy-Western University, which is nonaccredited and distributes a catalog that says that 20 federal agencies and organizations have paid for employees to obtain degrees from the school. According to Gelzer, former Kennedy-Western employees told the committee "it was common practice for the school to alter the bill to satisfy private and federal employers for reimbursement purposes."

Gelzer said that a Kennedy-Western counselor attempted to convince her that the federal government would pay for her coursework. Because the institution is not accredited, it is illegal for federal money to be put toward a degree at Kennedy-Western.

"I told her before I could sign up, I needed to confirm that the Coast Guard would pay for a Kennedy-Western degree," Gelzer said. "She asked if it would help to see some cancelled checks the school had received from other federal agencies … she faxed three cancelled U.S. Treasury checks payable to Kennedy-Western University. They were tuition payments for employees of the Air Force, the Army and the Defense Finance Accounting Service."

Gelzer also said that the coursework was shoddy and superficial. Jason Booth, who identified himself as a representative for Kennedy-Western after the hearing, said the information presented at the hearing was "hearsay" and was based on a few isolated incidents.

Lawmakers, experts and investigators wrestled with the question of diploma-mill students and whether they are victims or willing co-conspirators. Gelzer said she believes most Kennedy-Western students did not know they were enrolling in a diploma mill. She recounted several Internet postings from students surprised by shoddy or incomplete academic material from the school. Other experts said, however, that by the time they leave the school, even unsuspecting students should understand that their degree is not legitimate and should not be presented to potential employers.

"I'm not persuaded that most of the people who get these degrees don't know exactly what they are," said Alan Contreras of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization. "My impression is that most of them go into it knowingly…or by the time they come out they know exactly what they are."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    Download
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    Download
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    Download
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.