Human Capital & Careers

If I Only Had a Brain

A new GAO study shows just how easy it is to get a bogus university degree.
Lisa YoonJanuary 27, 2003

“Back where I come from, we have universities — seats of great learning — where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But, they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma!”

The Wizard of Oz, just before awarding the Scarecrow a doctorate in Thinkology.

Here’s a tip for CFOs hiring finance staff, courtesy of the General Accounting Office: Don’t skimp on the background check.

Remember Kenneth Lonchar, the former Veritas CFO, who got canned when directors found out his claim of holding a Stanford MBA wasn’t exactly truthful?

Well, according to a new report by the GAO, which was based on a year-long undercover probe requested by Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), getting a fake diploma for job applications is just a few clicks away.

How easy is it? There are lots of “diploma mills” out there, and they offer almost every option available. In its investigation, the GAO zeroed in on Degrees-R-Us (don’t you love it?), which sometimes goes by the moniker University Services Corp.

At the company’s Web site, you can buy diplomas for bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. degrees in 161 fields, including business and accounting. The site offers several packages, including a budget offering which costs $200. And what does 200 bucks get you? According to the Web site, “a prestigious diploma … ready for framing, from Chaparral Western College, printed on parchment paper manufactured by the same New England paper mill that has been supplying high grade cotton fiber paper for historic documents and universities since 1839”).

The company’s premier product, which will cost you an extra $195 on delivery, comes with one year of telephone access to the Registrars Office on a toll-free number (limited to six calls per month).

Money no object? Soup up your higher education, with cum laude ($35 extra on delivery), magna cum laude ($65), and summa cum laude ($75). By the way, if, like Veritas’s Lonchar, Latin wasn’t your strong suit, the site translates those tongue-twisting phrases. Other options include Dean’s List indications, up to eight semesters for $125, and transcripts (choose your own grade-point average) for $360.

For the savvy seeker of wisdom, money-saving package deals are also available.

In its investigation, the GAO sent out an agent posing as “Susan M. Collins,” medical-tech professional. Collins bought the premium offering from Degrees-R-Us.. At $1,515, the package included a B.S. degree in biology, an M.S. in medical technology, and honors distinctions. More worrisome for potential employers: the premium package also included access to a “student services” office run by Degrees-R-Us that serves as a “verification program.”

The GAO also sought out other people who had bought fake degrees to find out what they did with them. In the end, the agency reported that it was unable to determine how customers used their bogus degrees. Why? “The individuals we interviewed were not candid in discussing why they purchased the degrees or how they used them,” wrote the GAO staff.

So they went for Plan B: Investigators searched a government-sponsored job-recruitment Web site for applicants who claimed the held degrees from 43 known diploma mills. They found more than 1,200 C.V.s that included degrees from 14 diploma mills. Then they examined the resumes to see if the applicants holding fake degrees had held positions of high responsibility. They found 200 such candidates. In case you don’t hold a phony PH.d in quantitative physics, that’s one out of six.

Degrees-R-Us, the GAO found, is owned by a disbarred attorney who runs the show out of his Las Vegas home.

The report, which came out last Tuesday, has been referred to the Federal Trade Commission and the Postal Service for further investigation.

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting