Degree mill (also, diploma mill), noun: A company or organisation that claims to be a higher education institution but provides illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas for a fee. These degrees may claim to give credit for relevant life experience but should not be confused with legitimate prior learning assessment programmes. They may also claim to evaluate work history or require submission of a thesis or dissertation for evaluation to give an appearance of authenticity. An individual may or may not be aware that the degree they have obtained is not wholly legitimate. In either case, legal issues can arise if the qualification is used to secure employment.
Across the hundreds of thousands of background checks we run every year, we often come across degree mills. These are predominantly online entities, purporting to be genuine universities, offering ‘life experience’ qualifications, based on little or no real work.
With no legal authorisation to grant degrees or any recognised accreditation, there is no guarantee of quality in the qualifications they hand out. This creates a significant risk for any prospective employer, and indeed the general public, who will rely on this person’s ability to undertake a job they were supposed to be qualified for. The importance of screening for degree mills is something we’ve long been aware of – as this pair of cases show.
When recruiting for a management vacancy, a client of ours in the financial services industry received an application from a candidate claiming to have a degree from New Rochelle University in New York. At first glance, this may well have appeared to be a somewhat garbled reference to the perfectly reputable and legitimate College of New Rochelle.
However, the candidate subsequently called into the Verifile office to change their story, saying they’d meant to say Rochelle University, not New Rochelle University. Suspicions aroused, here is where the candidate’s problems began.
Running Rochelle University through our global database of unrecognised education providers, we discovered that it had been blacklisted by three US states – Oregon, Maine and Texas.
It turned out that Rochelle University was not accredited or recognised by the United States Department of Education, the Council of Higher Education Accreditation or any agencies acting on their behalf. Furthermore, we couldn’t find any information regarding Rochelle University’s location or contact details, apart from the US telephone number provided by the candidate. Needless to say, this is unheard of for any reputable educational institution.
Information from Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization suggested a link between Rochelle University and the similarly-named Rochville University. The latter was a well-known diploma mill; as a UK legal scandal in 2007, had already proved.
The unreliable scientist
That scandal involved Gene Morrison, a supposed forensic scientist who had acted as an expert witness in the UK courts for 27 years, receiving at least £250,000 for having done so. Morrison claimed to have three degrees – a BSc in Forensic Science, a Masters in Forensic Investigation and a Doctorate in Criminology. All three came from Rochville University. Once Morrison’s sham credentials were exposed, police had to reassess approximately 700 cases that he’d given evidence in, searching for miscarriages of justice.
Despite its notoriously dubious practices having been widely reported in cases such as this, Rochville University was still active.
Our researchers subsequently called up Rochville University and asked for the phone number for degree verifications. Perhaps not unexpectedly, it was the same number that our candidate had provided for Rochelle University.
Wanting to get as full a picture of the situation as possible, we now asked the candidate to provide a degree certificate. Unsurprisingly, the documents provided by the candidate showed that they had indeed purchased their degree from Rochville University.
It’s worth remembering that the job being applied for here was a management position in a financial institution. This person would have had responsibility for highly important and sensitive financial controls and procedures. It was a role where trust, integrity and honesty were non-negotiable personal characteristics. Once it was apparent the candidate had claimed to have a bogus degree, those characteristics had to be called into question.
Bogus institution, bogus accreditation
Staying in the world of financial services, another client of ours – a City-based mortgage company – was recruiting for an IT role. In this case, a candidate claimed to have a BSc in Computer Science from the University of Northwest, a US institution. The candidate claimed to have studied for this through the university’s UK agent, Stratford College London.
Running both these institutions’ names through our database again set alarm bells ringing.
The University of Northwest, despite its New York address, was not – and never had been - accredited by a US recognised accrediting agency. Nor was it listed as a recognised New York university or college by the New York State Education Department.
It had also been blacklisted in four US states – Texas, Oregon, Michigan and Maine. And, according to Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization, it had been selling invalid degrees in Afghanistan that summer. Neither the University of Northwest nor Stratford College London was recognised as an institution with the legal power to award their own UK degrees. Stratford College London was, however, at that time licensed to sponsor overseas students by the UK Border Agency.
When we contacted Stratford College, they confirmed that the degree was indeed attained through their college. However, they also stated that they no longer offered courses from the University of Northwest.
The university also claimed to be accredited by several agencies that have been blacklisted as unrecognised in the United States. This is a common occurrence with degree mills. They will often use – or even invent their own – bogus accrediting agencies, known as accreditation mills, in an attempt to make their qualifications look genuine. Accreditation mills tend to choose names similar to those of recognised accrediting agencies and will even falsely add well-respected universities to the list of institutions they supposedly accredit.
Returning to our IT candidate, it turned out he’d also lied about his A-Level grades on his CV; something which made our report on his bogus education even harder to ignore.
More than just a little white lie
It is hard to believe that either of these candidates was unaware of what they were doing when they originally purchased these ‘degrees’. Anyone who has been to university knows how tough it is to get a degree and the amount of work that’s required. As a result, we all expect that anyone claiming to have a degree has gone through the same demanding process and that their degree is recognised in the country in which it was awarded.
Regardless of whether or not having a degree is essential for the job itself, how we describe our academic credentials is a critical part of our suitability for any role, demonstrating our honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. If someone has knowingly set out to deceive in this way, they may not stop there and the potential risk to unsuspecting employers is huge.
A court case involving BSkyB and EDS in 2010 highlighted this point. Joe Galloway was a senior EDS manager and a key witness in a long-running lawsuit brought by BSkyB, accusing EDS of deceit, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract. Galloway’s credibility as a witness was destroyed when he was found to have lied about receiving his MBA through an institution based in the British Virgin Islands. This was exposed when the BSkyB barrister purchased the same Concordia College and University degree online on behalf of his dog, Lulu.
The EDS lawyers argued that Galloway’s dishonesty about his MBA did not affect the truthfulness of his evidence about the BSkyB contract. However, the judge stated, “It is simply not possible to distinguish between evidence which he gave on this aspect and on other aspects of the case”, before proceeding to award BSkyB over £700 million in damages.
When conducting a background check, a lot of importance is attached to protecting against applicants who present fake certificates. Checking if a certificate has been faked is a simple job though, involving little more than contacting the Registry department at the institution that is supposed to have issued it.
However, this doesn’t protect against degree mill qualifications. The institution will confirm they have issued a qualification – but that doesn’t preclude the qualification from being worthless. That’s why when conducting a CV verification, it’s so important to understand how education systems around the world work; how institutions are recognised and accredited. Only then can you know whether an institution, its qualifications and the people who claim to hold them can be taken seriously.