|Excerpt from a recent newspaper article regarding Rochville University:
Mike Mather Investigates
Diploma Mills - Degrees Without Taking Classes
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Your NewsChannel 3's Mike Mather
(Norfolk, VA, February 17th, 2004, 7:54 p.m.) Riley Golski is learning to count change, tell time and make compound words. By all measures, he’s one of the brightest students at Norfolk’s Taylor Elementary. So bright is Riley that his grasp of recreational sports recently earned him a college degree.
He'll be the first to tell you he isn't qualified. “I don't know lots of stuff, yet,” he said, barely glancing up from the day’s coloring project. Riley’s degree came from a “diploma mill,” one of hundreds of Internet-based businesses that promise university credentials and transcripts for as little as a few hundred dollars. Investigators say it is a $200-million-a-year industry that often dispenses undergraduate and advanced degrees in exchange for little or no academic work.
To see how much – or how little – one of these businesses would scrutinize the life and educational experience of an applicant, NewsChannel 3 applied to Rochville University using Riley’s unembellished accomplishments. Because of Riley’s athletic background, we asked for a degree in “exercise science” from a list of dozens. We paid $75 extra to have the transcripts reflect a 3.5 grade-point average. We were also given to option of “back dating” the degree to the date of our choice.
Rochville granted the degree for about $300, no questions asked. The university also provided car decals and a verification service that potential employers would contact if they were unsure of the degree. “Usually the employer is interested in verification of the documents only, for which Rochville University provides an excellent verification system, where complete authentication of the degrees and certificates is provided,” the university wrote to us while we were still pretending to be Riley. “This service verifies that the degrees obtained are authentic and meet certain eligibility criteria.” Rochville University’s professional web presence didn't surprise Dr. Anne Savage. “It is very easy to set up a fake diploma mill, a fake school, on the Internet,” said Savage, who heads the distance learning department of Old Dominion University. That department allows students to attend or view classes without ever being at the university.
Savage says she doesn't have much sympathy for degree-seekers who knowingly cut corners in the pursuit of phony credentials, but she also worries some questionable universities may be misleading well-intentioned applicants by overselling the clout of their degrees. In those cases, she says an applicant’s money would be better spent on an accredited school. “The fact that someone takes advantage of them breaks my heart,” she said. “It’s not right. It angers me.” A federal investigation is underway to see how many of the nation’s top government and Pentagon employees gained jobs or promotions by using credentials from either diploma mills, or other types of correspondence schools that are not accredited.
“No contender for a job — whether it's in the private sector or federal government — should lose out to a candidate because that candidate holds a bogus degree,” Virginia congressional representative Tom Davis told the Associated Press last month. Davis, a Republican, is one of two legislators who've asked the Government Accounting Office to examine the resumes of top government and Pentagon leaders. The investigation was sparked when a Washington-based industry newspaper revealed a top government officer held degrees that didn't require academic work. An investigation by Government Computer News showed that Laura Callahan, the former deputy chief information officer of the Homeland Security Department, “bought” three degrees from Wyoming-based Hamilton University. According to the trade publication, Hamilton awards degrees based on life experience and not coursework.
Callahan is on leave during the investigation. Davis has asked for a more broad investigation. The questioned education falls into two general categories. First, there are the diploma mills that award degrees based on an applicant’s “life experience” rather than on traditional academics. For a fee of a fee hundred to a few thousand dollars, an applicant can gain degrees the university promises to vouch for if ever questioned by an employer. The second type are schools that may offer degrees for a combination of academic work and life experience, even though their institutions are not recognized by traditional accreditation agencies. In some states, like Oregon, using a bogus degree to get a job or promotion can be a crime. That’s one reason the Oregon Department of Education keeps the largest known government listing of diploma mills and questionable universities.
A NewsChannel 3 search of online resumes also found dozens of people in Virginia and North Carolina claiming education or degrees from both diploma mills and the unaccredited institutions listed by Oregon. We found teachers, clergy, authors, lecturers, military personnel, a high-ranking emergency medical director, and even a state delegate claiming degrees or education from questionable sources. The state delegate, Lionell Spruill Sr., lists “Pacific Western University” on his state resume. After a 1997 lawsuit, that Hawaii-based university now carries disclaimers on its web site that the academic curriculum is not accredited by any agency recognized by the Secretary of Education. Oregon lists Pacific Western University on its roster of “substandard” institutions. Spruill represents parts of Chesapeake and Suffolk.
Despite what his resume listed last month, Spruill told NewsChannel 3 that he did not hold a degree from Pacific Western. “I took some correspondence courses” through the school, he said. “I did not get a degree.” When told his official House of Delegates biography listed him as holding a bachelors degree, he said, “that’s wrong.” He promised to fix the overstatement. Spruill’s current biography lists education at Pacific Western, but does not include a degree. The “Doctorate of Laws” Spruill lists on his resume is an honorary degree. As for Rochville University, it was easier to gain the degree for a first-grader than it has been to locate the school. None of the university’s numerous Internet pages lists an address. The fax number goes to Imlay, Nev. The school’s domain name lists an apartment building in Malden, Mass., as its address. The web site is routed through a server in St. Louis. When, still posing as Riley Golski, we asked Rochville administrators where the campus was, this was the reply: “Rochville University is an online Accredited University, operating from USA . All transactions and verifications are done electronically and all communication takes place via Internet, e-mail or fax.”
When we contacted the school again, but this time as NewsChannel 3, no one ever wrote us back. But they did email us as Riley, offering a masters degree for $269.
Here’s the information we supplied to Rochville University, on Riley’s behalf, in our application for a degree.: “During the past six years, I have studied numerous forms and disciplines of sports and recreation, to include the participation in a tennis academy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.; extensive aquatics instruction at Mallory Country Club also in Norfolk; the study of soccer tactics and skill-building at various locations in Virginia; and graduation from a rock-climbing course in Virginia Beach, Va. I ask that you consider my years of study and participation in the fields of athletics, exercise, recreation and nutrition as meeting the requirements for a degree in Exercise Science.”
State of Oregon’s list of diploma mills, unaccredited colleges and “substandard” institutions:
Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) searchable database of accreditation status:
If you have questions about this story, feel free to email Mike Mather at email@example.com
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