Agencies rife with bogus diplomas

GAO report

Hundreds of federal employees obtained phony academic degrees from diploma mills, and many of them used taxpayer dollars from federal programs to buy their way to academic success, according to a General Accounting Office report released last week.

The Internet has allowed diploma mills to flourish, making it difficult to measure the extent of the problem in the federal government. But investigators said their probe found that nearly 500 federal employees listed degrees from three diploma mills — more than 200 at the Defense Department alone — and nearly $170,000 in taxpayer funds were used to buy the credentials.

"The agency data we obtained likely do not reflect the true extent to which senior-level federal employees have diploma mill degrees," GAO officials said, citing no uniform verification system in the government to spot phony credentials.

That is likely to change soon, as Office of Personnel Management officials train human resources employees to spot fake credentials. They also are hiring additional investigators to verify educational backgrounds and developing application forms to help federal managers root out fake degrees more easily and make it clear what constitutes an accredited institution.

OPM Director Kay Coles James said the agency is increasing its vigilance to make sure program managers and human resources professionals can spot the misrepresentation of academic credentials.

The GAO report said the problem is systemic. It identified 28 high-level employees at eight agencies who had questionable degrees listed on an official application or security clearance record.

They included three management-level employees at the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. The three are managers in NNSA's Office of Emergency Operations and hold security clearances, the report said.

Some federal employees obtained degrees for life experiences with no academic work or classroom instruction. One institution's list of life experiences that could qualify for academic credit included horseback riding, playing golf, pressing flowers, serving on a jury and planning a trip.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said Congress, the Education Department and OPM must work together to identify bogus institutions and punish those who use the Internet and new forms of communication to market fake credentials.

"Diploma mills will not go away," Davis said. "It is time to make an unequivocal statement that fake degrees have no place or value in the federal workplace."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said the GAO report calls into question the qualifications and ability of some federal workers to do their jobs. She and Davis requested the investigation and held a two-day hearing on the problem.

The five unaccredited schools investigated by GAO have taken in more than $100 million, most of it in profit, according to Collins. She also complained that these bogus institutions used names similar to legitimate colleges and universities. For instance, Hamilton College, an undergraduate institution in New York, could be confused with the fake Hamilton University, she said.

"They devalue education by deliberately making it difficult to distinguish between a legitimate and a sham degree," Collins said.

In addition, she said, there is "clear evidence that tax dollars are being wasted on bogus degrees from unaccredited institutions that the federal government does not even recognize."

Collins began an investigation into diploma mills two years ago, but it became a scandal last year when Laura Callahan, former deputy chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department, resigned following disclosures that she had obtained three phony academic degrees.

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