Education almost ready on legit-college list

'The main problem John Barth's shop has is that they do not have authority from Congress that allows them to declare any school bogus.'

'Alan Contreras, Office of Degree Authorization of Oregon

Henrik G. de Gyor

Database would aid in identifying diploma mills

The Education Department within weeks will seek proposals for building a database of accredited colleges.

The department's Office of Postsecondary Education is in the final stages of crafting a request for proposals, said John Barth, director of accreditation and state liaison.

'We are looking to find a system to use the existing architecture of the IPEDS now online,' Barth said. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System provides contact information for schools that participate in the department's student aid program.

'We have the database, and it would simplify our lives if we could use the existing architecture and build links' to what Barth called the 'positive list.'

Officials from Education, the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Management and Budget, congressional committees and other agencies agreed earlier this year that the government should have a list of accredited institutions.

At the time, the agencies agreed that drawing up a list of diploma mills would be impractical because of the frequently shifting array of unaccredited institutions that operate via the Web. In addition, the task of regulating diploma mills falls under state, not federal, authority, said Alan Contreras, administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization.

'The main problem John Barth's shop has is that they do not have authority from Congress that allows them to declare any school bogus,' Contreras said.

The first and only time federal authorities issued a list of diploma mills was in April 1960. At the time, Health, Education and Welfare secretary Arthur S. Flemming condemned degree mills and vowed the department would issue lists of them annually, according to documents gathered by OPM consultant and diploma mill expert John Bear.

Education's positive list will have contact information for each school as well as the name of the agency that accredited the institution, Barth said.

'One of the challenges is that accrediting agencies can hold decision meetings two, three or four times a year, and each can lead to changes' in the lists, he said.

Department officials pledged at hearings last month that they would complete the first phase of the project by year's end. 'I don't think this phase is going to take very long,' Barth said.

Accreditation status

The second and more difficult phase of building a database of accredited schools will involve posting historical information about accreditation status on the Web, Barth said.

In the meantime, his office has been fielding hundreds of calls about the accreditation status of numerous colleges and universities.

Staff assistant Cathy Sheffield said she has handled many of the calls from state and federal agencies, as well as from prospective students and private companies.

'The government agencies are usually checking on a degree held by a job applicant, or on people who are already employed and want an additional degree,' Sheffield said.

She said she has taken many calls concerning police department and Pentagon employees.

Sheffield provides state agencies with information about Web sites they can check to verify that a school is accredited. But many diploma mills use names confusingly similar to the names of legitimate schools.

'I know where to look and find them, and I keep at it,' she said. She also relies on her experience from 11 years of responding to inquiries about accreditation status.

'It was just a few calls at the beginning,' she said. 'The rush came seven or eight years ago.' Sheffield has a rough-and-ready list of diploma mills that surface frequently in her work.

She does not refer to the bogus schools as diploma mills in her conversations with callers because doing so could expose her to lawsuits, she said.

In response to callers' inquiries, she simply gives information about whether a school is accredited by a legitimate agency.

'The going rate [for fake degrees] is from four or five hundred bucks to a couple of thousand,' Sheffield said. 'Some of the callers have already spent money and get a little upset' if they find out the school they paid is not properly accredited.

Sheffield said she has received more calls in recent months because her office phone number has been distributed at diploma mill training sessions held by OPM.

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