Barbarians at Higher Education's Gates

Barbarians at Higher Education's Gates

Phony degree scams offer a sheepskin equivalent of the emporer's new clothes.

Want a college diploma without ever enduring the inconvenience and cost of attending a college? Plenty of providers are out there, ready to oblige.

For example, there's BackAlleyPress.com. Its spiel? "Our novelty diplomas are designed to look 100% authentic! We produce over 1,000 replica novelty degrees, diplomas, and transcripts from universities all around the world. Our designers have gone through painstaking efforts to try to make each of our documents look as exact as possible. Each document is customized and printed individually to your specifications, including degree, major, and school." Last year a reporter wrote of obtaining a Harvard diploma and transcript from BackAlley's Thailand office. Printing, the reporter said, was done by the Shun Luen Company of Shenzhen, China. A check of the internet as this was written found BackAlley still alive and kicking.

Lest some potential customers are too dumb or ignorant to track down a website on their own, the fraud merchants are reaching out on e-mail. This writer received the following exclamation-laden e-mail message in early summer:

Other e-mails arrived at about the same time, each bearing substantially the same message but with differing phone numbers. My associate called two of these numbers. Dialing the first, despite the promise of "24 hours" availability, resulted in a recorded message that the number was no longer in service. The second number led her into a voicemail box, requesting her name and number and promising a return call. The call came about a week later.

The caller identified himself as representing "Haywood University" in London. He offered my associate a "beautiful diploma" for $2,000, with a $500 discount if she "signed up right now." The diploma would be delivered within 10 days of receipt of payment.

Diploma mills are rampant on the internet and in nations with weak or nonexistent regulation.

How could she qualify for this "beautiful diploma?" she inquired. The degree would be based upon her work experience. "You create the credentials." But what sort of degree would it be? What field of expertise should she claim? "Are you a reporter?" he asked at this point. The discussion was ended soon after that.

A search of the name "Haywood University" produced two "Sponsored Sites." Both "www.e-degrees.org" and "www.internetcolleges.org" were compilations of online higher-education organizations, organized by the states where their services are available. The first of these sites says, "If you are interested in attending an online college you have come to the right place. We have identified the best ones in each state." The list of "Featured Schools" didn't include a Haywood University. And, in fact, a Netscape search of "English Universities" also failed to turn up a Haywood University. A Google search came back with the query, "Did you mean 'hayward university'?"

In short, if a Haywood University exists outside of cyberspace and the telephone lines, we couldn't find it.

Backalley.com and Haywood U. are only the most brazen of the barbarians massing at the gates of higher education's ivory towers. Unaccredited schools at all levels of legitimacy--or illegitimacy--comprise the less menacing bulk of this barbarian horde. They are rampaging not only on the internet, but in nations such as India, where regulation of higher education is weak or nonexistent.

In a world teeming with billions of "Spare Parts and Broken Hearts," to borrow a Bruce Springsteen tune title, the desperately unqualified will turn to these diploma mills for their sheepskin equivalents of the emperor's new clothes. When they do, they are not the only victims of such scams.

Cristovam Buarque, Brazil's minister of education, recently said, "In the face of [global] upheavals, the university still represents the intellectual heritage [that makes it] the most appropriate and prepared place to guide the future of humanity." Stirring words, but true only if the global network of legitimate colleges and universities protects and defends its integrity and reputation against the barbarians at our gates.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column "Attorney at Large."


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