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Diploma Mills 101

by
Dr. Michael Kannisto
Dec 19, 2006

As a staffing professional, how many resumes have you reviewed in your career? Hundreds? Thousands? Do you ever find yourself pausing over something in a resume just because it seems strange? I recently found myself doing just that, and it ended up taking me down a very interesting path.

The resume in question was that of an IT professional who was under consideration for a full-time position. I was reviewing the resume when I noticed that, under the Education section, the job-seeker had indicated that he had “matriculated” at a school in Europe, had obtained an IT certification, and had received a B.S. degree in Computer Science.

“Hmmm, that’s strange,” I thought. It is rare to read a resume that lacks the name of the applicant’s alma mater, so we probed a bit. He told us that he had received his degree from a school in Alabama (let’s call it Acme University).

As things progressed with this candidate, we had our third-party vendor verify his academic credentials as part of our regular background screening process. No problem, as he did indeed have a degree from Acme University, and even provided the background screener with a copy of his diploma.

I’ll stop here, since you can probably see where this is going. Of course, there is no Acme University. But not only does this job-seeker have a diploma, but he could just as well have provided a letter of recommendation from one of his “professors,” produced a transcript, or supplied contact information for the school. He might even have a student ID card or a class ring!

“Diploma mills” have been around for a long time (I remember seeing ads for them back when I was in graduate school). As is the case with so many other scams, the Internet and our global marketplace have allowed this problem to reappear in a more pernicious form. Companies that sell diplomas come and go quickly online, often operating from overseas, which makes tracking them extremely difficult.

I believe this will grow to become an even bigger problem for those of us involved in talent acquisition. Because of new legislation designed to protect job seekers from discrimination, job descriptions have become much more specific regarding qualifications that are required vs. those that are simply preferred.

Having a degree can now make the difference between receiving fair consideration for a position, and getting a form response e-mail. It is not surprising that people are willing to take the risk of getting caught. Combine this with the recent proliferation of legitimate online educational resources, and the situation becomes almost overwhelmingly complex. The potential liabilities, however, are sobering.

Take a simple scenario: What if you hired someone to perform a specific task, and their degree is the proof that they are competent to perform that task (i.e., hiring a lawyer to review contracts). If they had a fake degree, it would be bad. But what if they interacted directly with an external customer while performing that service?

What if you selected this person over the next most-qualified job-seeker because their degree gave them an edge?

Are You Scared Yet?

Now imagine that someone is injured as a result of their work, or the company gets sued because of something they did. What if it’s revealed that your company didn’t bother to verify their academic credentials? Or, worse, that you did and then failed to take action.

My first response upon uncovering this whole sordid business was probably one many others would have: “I’ll simply ensure the job-seeker’s degree was granted by an ?accredited’ school.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. First, many diploma mills are accredited, just not by a legitimate body. Legitimate accreditation by the appropriate boards is also complicated, since there is no single organization responsible for the process.

In the United States, for example, there are several regional boards that grant accreditation to schools who voluntarily submit to a review, but there are significant distinctions at the state level. As you might imagine, things get even stickier when you try and establish accreditation for schools in another country.

It’s not the intention of this article to solve the problem; no matter what solutions are implemented today, someone will probably find a way around them tomorrow. As staffing professionals, we need to make decisions about how to respond. Our customers are relying upon us to develop strategies for ensuring high performers get through the door and behind a desk. Fast.

Tips to Implement Now

  • Develop a broad-based strategy. Your organization is looking to you to come to them with a solution. You can be nearly certain that you will encounter this problem sometime in the future, so the time to decide how to react is now. By the way, relying upon your background screener to catch this for you is not a strategy! They only do what you tell them to do. Look upon this as a fantastic opportunity to take ownership and examine the overall process you use to evaluate resumes. Work with your employment counsel, and determine where best to put controls in place. Prepare your management for what will happen when you catch someone with a phony degree, and explain beforehand what the next steps will be.
  • Implement a process for verifying academic credentials. It would be wonderful if there was a website somewhere that listed all the “diploma mills” in existence. Unfortunately, since they tend to come and go pretty quickly, there’s never a complete list. Further, certain types of diploma mills are technically not doing anything illegal; they are simply selling pieces of paper that look like diplomas. The wrongdoing is perpetrated only when the job-seeker tries to represent them as something they are not. While there are no comprehensive diploma mill lists, there are lists of accredited schools available online. The Federal Office of Postsecondary Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation are great places to start. Just keep in mind that accreditation is not necessarily an endorsement that a school is good or bad, only that the school volunteered to undergo a process. There are numerous resources about this topic available on the Internet.
  • Listen to your gut instinct. As a staffing professional, always listen to your gut instinct when you find yourself questioning any strange or confusing background information.

As I reflect upon all I’ve learned on this journey, I keep returning to the idea that we as staffing professionals are in a great position to add real value to our organizations.

Consider other things we encounter in a typical resume that could be subject to “alternative” interpretations: endorsements from personal references, prior professional accomplishments, language fluencies, etc. Simply establishing the credibility of someone’s degree is only another piece of the puzzle we try to assemble every time we’re identifying talent for our organizations.

Rather than simply adding another box to check in my pre-screening process, I’ve decided to use this as a way of challenging my customers with questions about the types of talent they want and what “good” really looks like to them.

It’s wonderful that technology has allowed us to automate so many of our processes, and abiding by specific and documented workflows has helped make the process of matching “job-seeker with a job” a much more open and fair process.

It’s important to remember, though, that this process still benefits from a human touch. And sometimes that takes the form of a little voice that says, “Hmmm, that’s strange.”

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Lisa Calicchio

    Michael,

    How wonderful to see your name and picture in print! What an interesting and insightful article on one of the many pitfalls we staffing professionals have to try and ‘guard’ against, for our clients and our enterprises! Thanks for highlighting your recent experience and giving us all some more watch-outs to add to the ever-growing list!

    Lisa Calicchio

  2. Mia Grant

    Dr. Kannisto,

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. I had a situation when I was a new recruiter. My assistant scheduled a pre-screen interview for a candidate who was educated outside the U.S. A few moments before the interview began I noticed that her education was listed as ‘University in India.’ I called my assistant in and asked what that meant. She thought it read ‘University of India.’ Since the candidate was in the lobby I met with her. I reviewed her resume with her and I questioned her regarding the ‘University in India.’ She was very evasive and would not provide the name. She then indicated she had graduated H.S. in the U.S., but I pressed a little further. It turned out this was a correspondence course in India! She did not provide the name of that school/company either.

    That was a lesson that has stayed with me. I learned that I must review resumes carefully to avoid wasting both my and the candidates time.

  3. Steven Levy

    Mike-

    This sounds all familiar – people read books and come across a word that is unknown to them…and they just hum over it rather than look up the definition. Or they read articles online with links…and never check the links.

    As it relates to recruiting, well this is where professionalism kicks in. Plain and simple – no excuses.

    So does my Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks count??

  4. Karen Mattonen C.A.C., C.S.P

    Great article
    was recently interviewing a candidate, and he mentioned that the university that he went to gave him credit and he earned his degree through his life experience. Wow, he did have a lot of life experience (job hopper, not age)

    That was interesting, checked out the school – what an impressive website, brilliant curriculum as well. Yes, they had an accreditation – very impressive sounding accreditation as well. Only thing was that the accreditation Association was not recognized by the US Department of Education OR the Council for Higher Education Accreditation

    Gee, was that hard to explain to the candidate – sorry bloke, your school lacks the legitimate accreditation accepted and acknowledged and is unfortunately not ensured to be valid by companies or academia.

    List of Non-recognized Accreditation Agencies
    http://www.credentialwatch.org/non/agencies.shtml

    http://www.degree.net/guides/accreditation_faqs.html- this explains the importance of accreditation

  5. Joseph Scalercio

    Before I got into recruiting, I earned a master’s degree in Education Technology, and did a lot of research in emerging education systems such as online learning. I learned a lot about diploma mills, and where they came from. Then when I moved into physician recruiting, I encountered a Caribbean medical school that was granting credit for life experience, to the extent that it was waiving a year of med school. Scary. Other pitfalls include schools that claim they do not require accreditation due to religious or ethnic reasons- in other words they do not recognize the authority of the U.S. to accredit them. Big warning flag.

    If anyone wants a benchmark to help navigate through this convoluted educational system of ours, I recommend the state of Oregon. They have passed a law which gives the Dept. of Education the right to declare certain schools illegal for presentation as credentials for a job. The list of these schools is on their web site. To my knowledge this is the only law of its kind. I invite anyone with further info on this to reply. The site for them is http://www.osac.state.or.us/oda/diploma_mill.html

    Hope this helps.
    Joe

  6. Karen Mattonen C.A.C., C.S.P

    Hiya Joe,
    actually not the only State; In Tiffin Ohio for example a Police Chief just had his trial date set for lying on his resume and application regarding his Education, rank, position, duties and responsibilities. Fostoria Police Chief John McGuire’s credentials, which include a degree from Concordia University, a Virgin Islands online school which provides degrees to people based on coursework and ‘life experiences,’ or work background was being questioned by a police union.

    This is considered falsification and he is facing Time and of course quite a heavy Penalty –

    Other States that I am aware of that have some legal programs in place are Washington, Il, MS, NJ, North Dakota and Oregon currently have laws that prohibit the Use or Sales of Bogus Degrees. KY is drafting a bill – Other states that I believe that Prohibit it as well are Texas, NV, ND, MI, IN, ME

    ID, CA allows the schools to operate, but don’t allow us residents to attend.. Hmm go figure that one out. (CA is cracking down though)

    Many States are more focused on putting the businesses out of commission than punishing the user

    The reason that many States are making this a crime (misdemeanor) is because the these individuals can ultimately be hired into roles where they can harm another. Consider it as our government playing a consumer protection role.

    The only thing that concerns me is that we have 50 States with 50 different laws, which makes it more difficult on the Recruiter and Personnel to determine the accuracy or legitimacy of these candidates.

  7. Lester S. Rosen

    Just happened to see this post. Readers may be interested in knowing that there has been allot of progress made in the screening industry on spotting diploma mills. No system is perfect since they are a bit of a moving target, but a good screening firm will check every school against a database of schools that have been accredited by recognized accreditation agencies. Where it gets complicated is that he fake schools have of course created fake accreditation agencies so do not be fooled by the web site. Make sure your screening firm has a process to only report schools that are accredited, and if not accredited, a process to research the school and to indicate if it’s for real. The topic of verification of education is covered is some detail in the Safe Hiring Manual.

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