Senate panel to give diploma mills the third degree

While investigating fake degree-granting institutions, GAO auditors obtained two diplomas under a Senate leader's name.

Diploma mills will come under congressional scrutiny when the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee begins Tuesday two days of hearings on bogus degree-granting institutions.

The General Accounting Office investigation, requested last July by Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., will look at employees who have received promotions based on fake degrees, and whether public money was used to purchase the credentials.

Witnesses at this week's hearings include representatives from GAO, the Education Department and the Office of Personnel Management, as well as a former employee of Columbia State University, a phony degree-granting institution shut down by federal agents in 1998. Also testifying this week is Alan Contreras, the administrator for the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, who maintains one of the few lists of diploma mills worldwide.

"It is by no means a complete list," Contreras said of his database of over 200 bogus degree suppliers. Some of these universities are located in the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia, although the "institutions" frequently are little more than a mailbox. "But some of them don't exist anywhere," Contreras said. "It's always been a problem, but the advent of the Internet allows for much easier marketing, and it makes it easier for these institutions to look authentic, with photos and testimonials on their Web pages," he said. The Internet also grants pseudo-authority to diploma mills because institutions need not meet any standards to obtain and ".edu" Web address. "There's never been any attempt to screen that, [even though] that's pretty easy to do," he said.

In anticipation of the report, OPM already is making changes to its application forms, and the Education Department has begun compiling a searchable list of accredited institutions.

Contreras said the agencies will face two main problems -- dealing with the small number of unaccredited schools that are academically legitimate, and handling diplomas from schools abroad. Many diploma mills masquerade as foreign schools, but they frequently are merely bogus institutions run from the United States, Contreras said.

At the request of Collins and Davis, the GAO investigation was expanded in January to include Pentagon employees. The report also examined the departments of Homeland Security, HHS, Energy, Transportation, Education and Veterans Affairs, along with OPM and the Small Business Administration.

Collins ordered an initial GAO investigation on obtaining diploma mill degrees in 2001. In that process, GAO obtained two diplomas in Collins' name: a bachelor's degree in biology and master's in medical technology.