Students or adult professionals who turn to the internet for online degrees promising brighter futures in a matter of weeks–or even days–should think twice when presented with offers that appear too good to be true, U.S. Department of Education (ED) officials say.

ED on Feb. 1 unveiled a new web site, intended to crack down on the swath of phony online degrees that have begun cropping up in both private and public sector jobs in recent months. Rather than take a job applicant’s word for it, employers now have at their disposal a master list of accredited colleges, universities, and career and vocational schools against which to verify an applicant’s credentials.

ED’s nationwide initiative comes less than a year after 11 Georgia educators were alleged to have purchased fraudulent degrees, including doctorate and master’s degrees, from an online diploma mill. The degrees–all purchased for between $995 and $1,500–were awarded for “life experience” and required no coursework. The educators, six of whom worked in the Gwinnnett County Public Schools, could have used these allegedly phony documents to reap thousands of dollars in additional pay from the school system. (See story: “Teachers try fishy online degrees“). Though no pay raises were granted, at press time the Georgia Professional Standards Commission was still investigating each case individually for evidence of impropriety.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, John Grant, chief investigator for the standards commission’s ethics division, said it was against commission policy to comment on the status of an ongoing investigation, but he did say that no disciplinary action has been taken as yet against any of the educators involved.

Even as investigators in Georgia seek answers, the problem of bogus online degrees is causing concern in other parts of the nation as well.

According to the Oregon Student Assistance Commission’s Office of Degree Authorization, which has launched a campaign against the proliferation of fake-degree granting programs on the internet and elsewhere, there are at least 258 foreign suppliers of unaccredited degrees currently offering diplomas to workers in Oregon. Across the country, it’s estimated that online diploma mills currently make more than $200 million a year from the sale of bogus degrees. Though the definition of “fraudulent” varies widely from state to state, many states–including Oregon–have passed laws barring the operation of these and other questionable operations, many of which offer degrees in exchange for a flat fee and often require little or no class time.

To help combat the problem, ED’s web site contains listings for 6,900 postsecondary and trade schools–all of which have received the blessing of the department, though ED cautions it is by no means a definitive list. Schools that choose not to participate in the federal student-aid program, for example, do not have to seek approval from an accrediting agency recognized by ED, officials explained.

If a student or employer doubts whether an accreditation is valid, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has partnered with ED to build awareness of the problem, recommends checking with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The organization’s web site, http://www.chea.org, maintains a comprehensive list of all 19 “recognized” accrediting institutions, including those approved by ED.

Though the database isn’t likely to answer all of your questions, officials contend, it makes for a good starting point.

“This new web site is an important tool to combat the growing industry of diploma mills that scam unsuspecting consumers and employers by offering fraudulent degrees,” said Assistant Secretary of Education Sally Stroup. “This web site is the first step in our continued efforts to increase awareness and provide useful information to the public.”

Stroup encouraged consumers and employers to use the tool as an initial source of information and to investigate further whenever an institution does not appear on the list.

Digging deeper still, the FTC has released a new online publication intended to help students and employers understand what is and what isn’t acceptable under the law.

The document, entitled “Avoid Fake-Degree Burns By Researching Academic Credentials,” lists a number of red flags students and employers should look for when trying to determine whether a degree is “bogus.”

One telltale sign, according to the FTC, is any institution that offers a reward for time already served–or so-called “work or life experience” degrees.

Many of these types of degrees reportedly advertise a flat fee, require little or no attendance, and promise to deliver diplomas in days from the time the money is received.

Savvy students and cautious employers also should watch out for diploma mills that engage in overly aggressive marketing tactics, hawking spam eMail and nagging pop-up messages that beg students to “order now.”

It’s up to the students and professionals who seek these advanced degrees to recognize when they’re being duped, the FTC warns. That, or suffer the consequences.

“Most employers and educational institutions consider it lying if you claim academic credentials that you didn’t earn through actual course work,” explains the FTC in its publication. “If you use a so-called ‘degree’ from a diploma mill to apply for a job or promotion, you risk not getting hired, getting fired, and–in some cases–prosecution.”

Back in Georgia, investigators for the professional standards commission remain committed to invalidating and exposing the work of fraudulent diploma mills.

“Believe me, we love any assistance we can get–wherever it comes from,” said Grant in reference to ED’s web site. “It’s just another tool to help us determine the validity of these degrees.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Postsecondary Educational Institutions and Programs Accredited by Accrediting Agencies and State Approval Agencies Recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education
http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/

Council for Higher Education Accreditation
http://www.chea.org

FTC’s web site: Avoid Fake-Degree Burns By Researching Academic Credentials
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/diplomamills.htm

Georgia Professional Standards Commission
http://www.gapsc.com

Oregon Student Assistance Commission’s Office of Degree Authorization
http://www.osac.state.or.us/oda/accreditation.html