The Internet, with its increased emphasis on distance learning, has made diploma mills more prevalent and profitable, said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who investigated education fraud during his tenure at the bureau.
Teachers, physicians and government employees have used these phony degrees to get jobs or promotions, Ezell said. Some diploma mills can print authentic looking certificates from real institutions, which could be used by terrorists and others to create fake identities.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee previously ordered an audit of the Pentagon and six other federal agencies that found that at least 463 employees had received degrees from unaccredited schools, Ezell said. The federal government paid more than $150,000 to several of these schools for employees who requested reimbursement. Ezell said these figures likely are "just the tip of the iceberg."
McKeon noted there had not "been a lot of follow-up" after that probe. He said if Thursday's hearing in the House was "the end of it, I would be vastly disappointed" and asked Ezell whether new federal laws are needed.
"I think the laws we have now will work if they are properly enforced," he said. "This is a very lucrative business and no one is doing anything about it."
Ezell suggested assigning at least one FBI agent to investigate these institutions full-time. He also said Congress should encourage the Education Department to develop and publish a list of legitimate accredited colleges to be used by federal agencies and other employers when making hiring decisions.
Ezell cautioned federal agencies about automatically revoking the security clearances of employees who hold degrees from diploma mills.
While some students knowingly commit fraud, many are required to complete work or exams and believe they are earning a real degree, Ezell said. He mentioned the recent case of a high level Homeland Security Department official who lost her clearance after it was revealed she "graduated" from a known diploma mill.
But McKeon said, "I don't think there's any innocence. I think anybody who would do that would absolutely know what they were doing."