Congress mulls new rules on diplomas

GAO's Robert J. Cramer delivers auditors' report.

Henrik G. de Gyor

GAO purchased two bogus degrees in Sen. Collins' name, along with a fake transcript, from Lexington University for $1,515.

Henrik G. de Gyor

After two days of testimony last week about federal workers' use of diploma mills, lawmakers must decide whether to adrress the problem with new administration rules or through legislation.

The hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee also included a report by the General Accounting Office on its investigation into the use of degrees from unaccredited institutions. Federal scrutiny of diploma mills was prompted last summer by reports in Government Computer News and Washington Technology that some government IT officials held bogus degrees.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) de-nounced improper federal payments for bogus degrees and said, 'The problem is a loophole in the law. While agencies cannot pay for an employee to get a degree from a diploma mill, there is no prohibition against them paying for individual courses at such an institution.'

Collins wants to close the training loophole and make sure that federal programs such as Head Start do not use federal funds to pay for worthless degrees.

She is also encouraging the Education Department to develop a unified list of accredited schools and the Office of Personnel Management to implement reforms that will curb diploma mill abuses.

A witness for Education confirmed that the department is developing a list of accredited schools, and an OPM official said the agency is changing personnel forms to require information on schools' accreditation status.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who had joined Collins in requesting a General Accounting Office investigation of diploma mills, took a slightly different position during the first of two days of hearings that began Tuesday.

Davis favors a fundamental change in the way the government classifies institutions of higher education. Like Collins, he noted that some unaccredited schools provide legitimate education.

Collins and Davis both said that Congress may have to add legislative action to ongoing administrative measures. Davis spoke more strongly in favor of new legislation.

'Congress may also have to consider whether new criminal laws are needed to allow federal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute diploma mill activity,' Davis said. 'Or perhaps the Federal Trade Commission should do more to stop false claims by diploma mills.'

Davis said the Internet has facilitated diploma mill scams, and called for 'Congress and the administration to develop policy to permit federal managers to know whether a degree represents completion of a legitimate course of study.'

Davis' committee likely will hold hearings to analyze measures needed to prevent diploma mill abuses.

A key element of the Senate hearings was a GAO report revealing that the federal government had paid nearly $170,000 to unaccredited schools on behalf of federal employees, and that the true extent of improper payments likely is much larger.

Robert J. Cramer, managing director of GAO's Office of Special Investigations, told the committee that his agency found that 28 high-ranking officials at eight federal agencies hold diploma mill degrees and that a total of 463 students at three unaccredited schools work for the federal government.

The auditors found in looking at only five schools that the federal government had paid for about 70 federal employees to enroll in unaccredited institutions.

'We believe that this number understates the number of federal employees at these agencies who have such degrees,' Cramer said.

The audit agency report cited the cases of five unnamed federal employees who had received degrees from unaccredited schools: three at the National Nuclear Safety Administration, one at the Transportation Department and one at the Homeland Security Department.

The facts GAO presented about the DHS official matched the career of Laura Callahan, a senior director in the department's CIO office who recently resigned after being on paid leave.

Another employee had an academic career that matched that of Transportation CIO Dan Matthews, who received a degree from Kent College, an unaccredited school. Matthews has retained his post with Transportation and as vice chairman of the CIO Council.

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