The heat is on dubious degrees

Rep. Tom Davis says he wants to know why the Labor Department took no action despite knowing about Laura Callahan's suspect credentials.

Sen. Susan Collins asked GAO to investigate 'coin-operated' colleges.

Meanwhile, more than 50 found to have iffy credentials

As Congress turns up the heat on federal workers' use of academic degrees from unaccredited institutions, research conducted by Post Newsweek Tech Media publications has uncovered questionable credentials for more than 50 officials in IT-related jobs in government or with federal contractors.

The investigation'by GCN and sister publication Washington Technology'and congressional focus followed the discovery that Laura Callahan, senior director in the Homeland Security Department CIO's Office, had obtained bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Hamilton University, an unaccredited school in Evanston, Wyo., that requires scant academic work. DHS placed Callahan on administrative leave June 5 and is investigating her credentials.

In the wake of the news of Callahan's degrees, two lawmakers have requested General Accounting Office investigations into diploma mills. In one of them, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, asked GAO to investigate the use of diploma mill degrees and credentials by federal employees, including whether the federal government has paid for these degrees.

Collins said the investigation will follow up an earlier GAO study on diploma mills she had requested. It 'reflects the need to determine the prevalence of this practice and whether steps need to be taken to shut down these 'coin-operated colleges,' ' she said.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he was disturbed to learn that the Labor Department, where Callahan previously worked, knew of her suspect credentials but took no action before she transferred to DHS.

The Office of Personnel Management told Labor that Callahan had received academic degrees from an unaccredited institution, Davis said in a letter sent June 26 to Clark Kent Ervin, DHS inspector general. Ervin's office is investigating the matter, and Davis asked for a full report on the IG's findings.

Mail-order mills

In a separate request to GAO, Davis asked the auditing agency to look into how federal agencies ensure that employees who have been promoted on the strength of their educational credentials earned their degrees from accredited institutions.

Diploma mills run the gamut from simple mail-order houses for fake degrees to schools requiring some course work and the writing of a thesis. The latter type typically lets clients gain academic credits for course work by furnishing evidence of work or life experience relevant to the subjects in which they are seeking a degree.

What these organizations have in common is that they are not accredited by federally recognized regional accrediting organizations.

For example, at California Coast University in Santa Ana, Calif., prospective students can have undergraduate courses waived by applying credit for what it calls 'life-learning.' The school lets students use its 'accelerated learning guides' as refresher courses in areas where previous experience has provided knowledge. It provides 'course work study guides' based on specific college-level textbooks.

But CCU is not recognized by the Education Department and not accredited by any federally recognized accreditation board. It is licensed by the California Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education'part of the state's Consumer Affairs Department, not its Education Department.

Despite this, CCU notes in its spring 2003 newsletter that more than two dozen federal agencies have paid for or reimbursed employees for tuition costs. According to CCU, they include the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps; the Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Justice, Treasury and Transportation departments; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Postal Service.

California Coast brochures also say several agencies, including the Air Force, Army and Justice Department, have given employees pay raises or promotions after they received CCU degrees.

Educational credentials from unaccredited schools do have their defenders. Dennis Van Langen, director of the Field Support Division of the Pentagon's Information Management Division, has a master's and doctorate in management from CCU. He credits the degrees with making it possible for him to advance professionally.

'I think the main benefit of any advanced study is that it increases your flexibility,' Van Langen said. 'I think it has been helpful in terms of the number of areas I can work in, the number of positions I qualify for, and the number and variety of projects I can become involved in.'

Van Langen said he was able to waive two or three courses as a result of his class work at other institutions, and in an internal Pentagon newsletter, he said he traveled to CCU's headquarters in Santa Ana to personally defend his doctoral dissertation.

Red flags

There are warning signs that a prospective student and employers can use to screen a school. Both the Education Department and the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintain electronic databases of accredited institutions against which a school name can be checked.

The Student Assistance Commission of Oregon maintains a list of schools it defines as diploma mills. Oregon forbids the use of degrees from schools on the list because they are not approved by its Office of Degree Authorization or accredited by a bona fide accrediting agency.

Alan Contreras, administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, said that in Oregon using a degree from an unaccredited school for any academic or professional purpose, including applying for a job, is a misdemeanor.

Most diploma mills claim to be accredited by accrediting organizations that are themselves not genuine.

An investigation by GCN and Washington Technology has turned up dozens of IT workers in government and contractor ranks who claim degrees from unaccredited organizations. The investigation did not look for the use of diploma mills by the broader federal employee base. The list includes workers with a total of 22 bachelor's degrees, 19 master's degrees and 13 doctorates from 16 institutions found on the Oregon list and not on the Education and CHEA lists.

The degrees include a dozen in some form of computer science or management information systems, six in engineering and 14 in business administration.

Among the professionals with credentials from unaccredited programs are presidential appointees, senior executives and military officers, including:
  • Charlie Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness

  • Jimmy Shirl Parker, CIO of the Federal Technology Service in the General Services Administration

  • A board member of the National Science Foundation

  • A contract IT professional in the Office of Naval Intelligence

  • A Transportation Security Administration official responsible for screening applicants for employment as airline baggage inspectors

  • A NASA contract employee responsible for safety engineering

  • A biostatistician in a military medical organization

  • An IT manager with the Federal Reserve Board.

GCN and Washington Technology reporters located these and other individuals by comparing the academic credentials they claim against Oregon's list of diploma mills.

According to OPM's manual of qualifications and standards for GS positions, educational credentials refer specifically to degrees acquired at accredited colleges or universities.

Public-policy analysts and private-sector experts said they view the credential issue as a matter of concern.

'I think a starting point is obviously that nobody can be satisfied with having a federal employee who is selected on the basis of having a degree that is in fact not a real degree,' said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. 'One of the things to recognize here is that the federal government requires, when a degree is a requirement of a job, that the degree be from an accredited institution.'

Careful study

Stier said that the issue of inflated credentials should be studied carefully before further regulatory or legislative measures are adopted. 'It may just require additional diligence by agencies that do background checks or additional education of managers,' he said.

Steve Nelson, director of policy and evaluation for the Merit Systems Protection Board, oversees a unit that conducts studies of federal personnel practices.

Claiming to have a degree from an unaccredited school 'is lying on your application,' Nelson said. 'It is like saying you have been working for IBM Corp. whereas in fact you have been working for Integrated Ballistic Missile.' Doing so could be grounds for personnel action that Nelson said could include 'a small form of discipline or removal.'

He added that OPM qualification guidelines, which require that any degrees claimed by an applicant be obtained from an accredited institution, do let applicants substitute experience for education.

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