Sunday, August 02, 1998

August 2, 1998: NYT: Easy Degrees Proliferate

The New York Times
August 2, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Section 4A; Page 17; Column 1; Education Life Supplement

Easy Degrees Proliferate on the Web
By David Koeppel

Ira Doreen Donovan, an elementary school teacher in Miami, was 31 credits shy of a master's degree in special education when she saw an on-line advertisement for Columbia State University. After sending $800 as the first payment on a $2,000 degree, Ms. Donovan received a textbook to summarize and send back for grading.

Believing this was the first step of several, she was shocked when shortly after, a certificate not only for a master's but a doctorate arrived at her home. Along with the degrees came transcripts awarding her a 3.9 grade point average for classes never taken and credit for a completed thesis and dissertation.

"I called the school and told them if this degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on, I don't want to pay for it," Ms. Donovan said. "This degree mill made me look like a fool."

Columbia State returned her money, but others say they have not been so lucky.

After investigating 36 complaints, including one from Norway and one from Malaysia, the Louisiana Attorney General's office has filed for a preliminary injunction against Columbia, charging that it violates the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act and consumer protection laws. Last month the State of Illinois also filed suit seeking an injunction and restitution for consumers and the state.

Repeated calls to Columbia's office in Metairie, La., seeking comment were not returned.

The Internet has "rekindled the old-fashioned diploma mill," said Michael Lambert, the executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, a recognized accrediting agency that has approved 65 on-line and home-study schools. "The Internet is a haven for these places."

Surfing the Web these days is like flipping through a virtual college catalogue. With its interactivity and accessibility, the Internet has sparked new interest in home-study programs, offering actual courses on line or just information.

Although many distance-learning schools have solid reputations and graduation requirements, hundreds of Web sites have popped up for schools charging between $200 and $7,000 for sheepskin that requires little or no work from students. Columbia, for instance, promises degrees within 27 days.

Elaborate home pages make schools look credible, Mr. Lambert said. The schools can operate in the anonymity of cyberspace, sometimes listing just an E-mail address or post office box. And on line, they can reach a global audience for minimal cost.

Eugene Sullivan, co-author with David W. Stewart and Henry Spille of "External Degrees in the Information Age," the American Council on Education's guide to correspondence programs, defines a diploma mill as an "organization that sells degrees without an academic base and without requiring sufficient academic achievement."

While perfectly legitimate schools might have an element or two of a diploma mill (say, credit for work experience), experts say there are multiple defining characteristics:

* The school emphasizes credit for work or life experience without appropriate mechanisms for assessing that experience in terms of college-level learning.

* Degrees are obtained in far less time than would be required at a legitimate institution. (A bachelor's degree typically takes four years of full-time course work, a master's one to two years, a Ph.D. dissertation several years to research and write.)

* Tuition and fees are on a per-degree basis instead of per semester or course.

* School brochures list faculty members who neither teach nor provide other services, and there is virtually no interaction with faculty members.

* The school is not accredited by an agency approved by the Department of Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or other legitimate institutions.

Accreditation, however, is voluntary.

"From my experience it's not the blatantly fraudulent schools that are the real threat," Mr. Stewart said. "It's the academic frauds that have a little substance that are the problem."

He was referring to schools that require students to perform some academic exercises like writing a paper or taking an exam -- and some students might invest considerable effort -- but their degrees are unacceptable to established colleges and universities and unimpressive to prospective employers.

But experts admit that most such institutions cater to people who know exactly what they are getting into.

"Many people are well aware of what they are doing," Mr. Sullivan said. "They want a credential and they want to get it quickly. But others are busy people or foreign students who don't know much about higher education. They see these places as programs that fit their needs."

Joe Joyal of Atlanta said he had worked as an engineer for 20 years without a degree and applied to Columbia State for a joint bachelor's/master's degree in mechanical engineering. He received both degrees in under six months after summarizing two textbooks.

He said he suspected the degree was worthless but nonetheless listed it on his resume. Later he had second thoughts and took it off. He is pursuing a degree from an accredited distance-learning program.

Columbia State claims in Internet advertising that it is accredited by the International Accrediting Association, a "fictitious school accrediting agency," according to the Louisiana Attorney General's complaint. The owner of Columbia, Ronald Dante, was sentenced in February in Los Angeles to five-and-a-half years in prison for operating fraudulent schools in California. He jumped bail and is being sought by United States marshals, according to Michelle Muth, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission. Columbia continues to operate.

Perhaps the largest crackdown on schools took place from 1981 to 1991, when Operation Dipscam (for diploma scam) put 50 out of business on charges ranging from mail or wire fraud to conspiracy. "Sometimes we'd find phony accreditations or that we were able to negotiate a degree for a lower price," said Allen Ezell, a former agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who oversaw Dipscam. "Some schools sent transcripts and diplomas to students for courses never taken."

States like New York and Illinois closely regulate academic institutions, requiring that they be authorized to operate. But many don't. Mr. Ezell said investigations often start by looking into schools incorporated in the states with the weakest laws, like Hawaii, Utah and Louisiana.

Hawaii has been wrangling with a few unaccredited schools lately. Its department of consumer affairs has sued Pacific Western and American State Universities, two distance-learning schools with offices there, for not making clear in advertisements that they are unaccredited. After agreeing to a settlement, American State decided to close. "The penalties were too substantial," the school's lawyer, Evan R. Shirley, said, specifically citing the requirement that every ad disclose its unaccredited status.

"My client never explicitly expressed wrongdoing," he added, "but a conclusion could be rationally made that there was wrongdoing."

Pacific Western's case is pending. Calls to its office and lawyers were not returned, but in answer to the complaint filed in circuit court in Honolulu, it denied allegations that it misleads consumers about its accreditation or suggests it is "somehow accredited or approved by the State of Hawaii to award academic degrees."

Another area of dispute that has caused considerable legal wrangling has been the similarity in names between accredited and unaccredited schools.

An unaccredited school called Washington University, which has an office in Bryn Mawr, Pa., but is incorporated in Hawaii and the British Virgin Islands, settled a suit in June filed by the more established Washington University of St. Louis. The suit charged that the unaccredited school infringed on its trademark and engaged in unfair competition.

The details of the settlement are confidential, but the consent judgment entered by the court told the school to come up with a new name, and one that separated the words "Washington" and "University" with a word of at least 10 characters.

Yil Karademir, who owns the unaccredited school, chose Washington International University. (Unaccredited schools tend to favor the word "International," as well as "America," "United" and "Pacific.")

The St. Louis school had complained that it had received inquiries from prospective students and alumni who were confused when they saw the other school's ads -- not to mention being the target of protests from human-rights activists after a businessman linked to Myanmar's military dictatorship bought an honorary doctorate.

"What they do bears no resemblance to the education we provide," said Lori Fox, the associate general counsel for Washington University in St. Louis. "Are they a diploma mill? You'll have to draw your own conclusions."

Mr. Karademir said he is not running a diploma mill.

"We are a young university," he said. "We didn't even know about them when we chose the name three years ago. They're not exactly Harvard. Calling us a degree mill is hitting below the belt in order to belittle and discredit us."

Mr. Karademir said his school is made up mostly of international students who are given academic credit for life experience, though he plans to add on-line courses in the fall. Washington International's Web site is extensive and promises to grant degrees in one year. "The academic comunity sic find our degree programs to be OUTSTANDING!" the Web site declares. "All Washington International University degrees are ATTESTED and sealed for authenticity by a Government appointed NOTARY!"

Costs range from $2,850 for a Bachelor of Science in business administration to $7,400 for a combination bachelor's and master's degree.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is investigating complaints about the school, according to Michelle Haskins, a department spokeswoman.

Last year, the Illinois Attorney General succeeded in shutting down an on-line school, Loyola State University, for violating consumer protection laws by confusing students into thinking it was Loyola University of Chicago. Patricia Kelly, division chief of consumer protection in the Attorney General's office, said that Lorie LaFata, who ran the school, created dummy transcripts with fictional class names, codes and grades. Students would receive diplomas after paying $2,800. "We were able to see she was not offering what she promised," Ms. Kelly said.

In her settlement with the Attorney General's office, which had filed suit against her, Ms. LaFata agreed to pay restitution to the state and not to conduct business on the Internet for five years, including having a Web site.

"The state and I came to a good understanding," said Ms. LaFata, who offered that she had been a Columbia State student. "I did have to admit to wrongdoing. It was an awful time for me. I hope to leave that behind."

Richard Mitchell, president of the New Orleans Better Business Bureau, advises prospective students to do their own investigating before signing up with a distance education school.

"Do some intelligent things like checking out a school with agencies that can give you more information," he said. "Don't just jump into a school because they have an impressive Web site. If you take time and do your homework, you can avoid a problem."

Mr. Lambert said it was easy for unsophisticated applicants to be fooled. "In mixing dollars and dreams," he said, "it's many of the true innocents that get trampled on."

How to Check School Credentials

Surfing the Web for a home-study school? The Department of Education suggests that thr first step is to check a school's accreditation - a process in which courses are reviewed, students surveyed and campuses inspected. For a list of agencies approved to accredit schools, write: Department of Education Accreditation and Eligibility Determination Division, 6000, Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202-5244; (202) 708-7417;

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an organization of colleges and universities, also approves accrediting agencies. Write: One Dupont Circle, N.W., Suite 854, Washington, D.C. 20036-1110; (202) 955-6126;