OPM, Education take action on diploma mills

More than 18 months after the federal government first got a glimpse of the breadth of its own problem with employees holding fake degrees from unaccredited schools, several agencies announced steps to educate the public and employers about these scams.

Representatives from the Office of Personnel Management and Department of Education unveiled a new Web site that will let visitors search among approximately 6,900 postsecondary educational institutions accredited by groups recognized by the secretary of Education.

'There is no easy fix' to the problem of individuals claiming bogus academic credentials, said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House education reform subcommittee, who hosted the press conference.

'These pose a danger to legitimate institutes of higher education,' said Rep. Howard 'Buck' McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on 21st century competitiveness.

In addition to the Web site listing legitimate schools, Stephen Benowitz, OPM's associate director of human resources products and services, introduced revisions to the agency's qualifications manual, spelling out the criteria for acceptable degrees for applicants for federal employment.

OPM has been 'consistent and clear,' Benowitz said. 'There is no place in federal employment for diploma mills.'

Also, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a new document for businesses, Avoid Fake-Degree Burns by Researching Academic Credentials, which spells out some of the warning signs that a school might be fraudulent, and gives tips for checking academic credentials.

The issue of federal employees claiming degrees from diploma mills became highly visible in the summer of 2003, when Government Computer News and its sister publication, Washington Technology, discovered dozens of federal IT professionals with degrees from nonaccredited schools.

'People are getting advancement ahead of other employees based on these phony degrees,' said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. 'This is a vital step in combating fraud via diploma mills."

Davis spokesman David Marin pointed out after the press conference, 'This is a 21st century problem.'

The Internet has made it possible for phony schools to proliferate and made it difficult for either states or federal agencies to prosecute them.

There is no definitive count of the number of diploma mills, but Oregon does compile a list of known bogus institutions, said Sally Stroup, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department. That list has approximately 250 names, she said.

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