Diploma mills aren’t the result of technological advancements. In fact, phony institutions selling bogus degrees have been around since 1880 when physician John Buchanan starting hawking medical diplomas after the Civil War. Since then, shady schooling has enjoyed ebbs and flows, but there’s definitely been a surge during the past few years thanks to the growing popularity of online schooling and the current economic climate. Fancy Web sites can muddle a school’s authenticity (or lack thereof) especially when Web surfers are looking for a quick way to stand out in the job hunt. It doesn’t help, either, that bogus degrees aren’t always initially worthless.
Case in point: Laura Callahan who served as former senior director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Callahan had been working for the government for almost five years before anyone realized her two computer science degrees from Hamilton University (not to be confused with the accredited Hamilton College) weren’t worth the paper they were written on. The now-defunct diploma mill from which she purchased a bachelor’s and master’s degree was investigated after another government employee questioned Callahan’s qualifications. Turns out Hamilton University was run out of a Motel 6 in Wyoming by an organization dubbed “The Faith in the Order of Nature Fellowship Church,” who sold degrees for a low fee and some minimal coursework.
Callahan was put on paid leave and ultimately resigned. No formal charges were ever filed. However, the exposure prompted a widespread 2004 federal investigation by the General Accounting Office, which discovered that more than 463 employees had obtained degrees from unaccredited institutions. (To complicate matters, three of these employees had top-secret security clearance and emergency operations responsibilities.)
Most of the officials were never publicly named so their exact fate remains unknown.
“It is taking a very big risk to buy a fake degree or to claim to have a degree that you have not earned. It is like putting a time bomb on your resume,” John Bear, diploma mill experts, says in his book “Bears’ Guide To Earning Degrees By Distance Learning. “The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily.”