Online Extra: Inside diploma mills

Laurie Gerald, a former employee of Columbia State University

Henrik G. de Gyor

Senate hearings last week on diploma mill abuses featured sometimes colorful testimony by former diploma mill employees who described the scams.

Laurie Gerald, a former employee of diploma mill Columbia State University who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud, testified that "Columbia State had no faculty, qualified or otherwise, no curriculum, no classes, no courses, no tests, no one to grade tests, no educational facilities, no library and no academic accreditation."

Gerald described the cynical frauds and flamboyant behavior of Columbia State owner Ronald Pellar, who grossed about $20 million from the operation.

Pellar, a former professional hypnotist, carried a briefcase with $100,000 in cash, and buried gold coins in his back yard, she said. He brazenly faked accreditation, transcripts, testimonials and other marketing materials for the school. Pellar recently was sentenced to eight months in jail for federal mail fraud crimes associated with the scheme.

On the second day of the hearings, the panel heard from a former employee of a diploma mill, Kennedy-Western University in California, and a committee investigator who had enrolled to get a master's degree in environmental engineering from it.

Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Claudia Gelzer, who holds a legitimate master's degree in environmental public policy and worked as an investigator on detail to the committee, enrolled in Kennedy-Western. She said the school earned almost $25 million in 2003, has nearly 10,000 students currently enrolled and claims that about 20 federal agencies have paid for its degrees.

The school did not check any of Gelzer's claims on her application, and she did not tell Kennedy-Western about her graduate degree.

Gelzer described how her Kennedy-Western admission counselor adjusted her bill to exploit the course-reimbursement loophole.

'Kennedy-Western courses are not what most of us have experienced at the university level,' she said, describing poorly-written, open-book, multiple choice tests and useless reading assignments.

Andrew Coulombe, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and a former admissions counselor for Kennedy-Western, said his work amounted to high-pressure telemarketing aimed at people who were down on their luck, held dead-end jobs or who had just experienced a problem such as being fired or divorced.

Coulombe said Kennedy-Western did not deliver what it promised. Ultimately, he quit the job. 'I felt that what I was being asked to do as an admissions counselor was unethical,' he said.

Kennedy-Western sent two public relations representatives to the hearings to defend its activities. One of the spokesmen, Lewis M. Phelps of the Los Angeles firm of Sitrick and Co. Inc., said Kennedy-Western did not market to federal employees. 'The student is told unequivocally that Kennedy-Western is not an accredited university,' Phelps said.

Coulombe and Gelzer conceded that point, but said the organization's marketing pitches minimize the importance of accreditation.

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