Agencies check resumes

The disclosure that a prominent federal information technology official obtained degrees from a so-called diploma mill raises the question of what method agencies use to check the credentials of employees and prospective hires.

Although almost every federal agency is required to check the legitimacy of the educational institutions their employees attended, no federal agency maintains a publicly available list of accredited colleges and universities. Still, the Office of Personnel Management verifies the credentials of about 40 percent of federal job applicants without such a list.

In addition, agencies are supposed to check whether colleges and universities are legitimate before offering them grants and issuing educational benefits to students and employees.

OPM officials said the Education Department is the most likely federal source of information about accredited schools, but an Education spokesman said the department does not maintain a list of accredited schools. Nongovernmental associations award accreditation to colleges and universities. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, based in Washington, D.C., in turn, recognizes those organizations.

At a press briefing this month, OPM officials said existing procedures and rules work well when employees and job candidates have credentials from accredited institutions. However, the case that made headlines earlier this year involved degrees from Hamilton University in Evanston, Wyo. The university's Web site says the American Council of Private Colleges and Universities accredited it, but that association is not recognized as a legitimate accrediting organization, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Diploma and accreditation mills are a problem in this country, according to Judith Watkins, the council's vice president for accreditation services. For the past year, it has offered an online database of accredited colleges and universities and legitimate accrediting organizations on its Web site (www.chea.org). "For an employer, this is all you need," Watkins said.

"One of the things about diploma mills is, typically, no matter how they represent themselves to the public through their Web sites and whatever brochures they put out, they claim to be distance-learning organizations," said Steve Benowitz, associate OPM director for human resources, at a press briefing Aug. 13.

Often a diploma mill will award an advanced degree on the basis of a resume, test, brief scholarly paper and the payment of several thousand dollars, he said.

At training sessions for about 435 federal investigators and human resources professionals this month, OPM invited John Bear, author of "Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally," to speak. Benowitz said "Bear's guide really sort of lays out all of these distance-learning schools...those that are legitimate, those that are questionable and those that are diploma mills."

House and Senate leaders have asked OPM to review the procedures and rules after learning of the case of Laura Callahan, a senior director in the Homeland Security Department's IT unit. Callahan, former deputy chief information officer at the Labor Department, has been on leave from DHS since her degrees from Hamilton have come under scrutiny.

The General Accounting Office has begun an investigation of diploma mills at the request of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

"This isn't a new issue," said Kathy Dillaman, OPM's deputy associate director in charge of investigation services. "We've been finding federal employees with bogus degrees for decades and dealing with them."

However, the agency is considering developing new rules or other actions that will deal with what its executives describe as fraud. The deception arises when employees get agencies to pay for their fake training courses, which then are used as credits to obtain bogus degrees, Benowitz said.

"If that exists, that is an issue," Benowitz said, "because the government is being asked to pay for something it didn't get." In essence, the government is buying the phony degree for the employee, he said.

Benowitz said most training courses are provided by reputable commercial companies. Because they are not conventional educational institutions, the educational accreditation system does not apply to them.

OPM Director Kay Coles James alerted federal agencies this week to be on the lookout for bogus academic degrees granted to employees on the basis of phony training courses the agencies paid for.

"The issue from the government's perspective is when we send somebody to training, are they getting legitimate training with a solid course of study, and are we getting what we pay for," Benowitz said.

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How to spot a diploma mill

The Better Business Bureau lists the following as a typical diploma mill's characteristics:

* Degrees that can be earned in less time than they would at traditional colleges.

* A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Some schools list accreditation by organizations that the Education Department does not recognize, or they imply official approval by mentioning state "registration" or licensing.

* A heavy emphasis on college credits for lifetime or real-world experience.

* Tuition paid on a per-degree basis or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Traditional colleges charge by credit hour, course or semester.

* Little or no interaction with professors.

* Names that are similar to well-known reputable universities.

* Addresses that are post office box numbers or suites. That campus may very well be a mail drop box or someone's attic.

Source: Better Business Bureau

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