By Joseph Harkins
BURLINGTON, VT. -- Some online colleges and universities are more than willing to throw a bone at students interested in earning a degree through their distance learning programs. Just ask Chester Ludlow, who eagerly bit at the first treat that came along.
In May, Rochville University conferred upon Ludlow a master’s degree -- in recognition of his lifelong body of work and experience – via a post office box in Dubai, just one week after submitting his resume and a $499 fee. After promising a fast and inexpensive MBA, Rockville University had kept its word. Ludlow was speechless. After all, it can be said his bark is sometimes softer than his bite.
Chester Ludlow is a pug hailing from Vermont. With degree now securely in paw, he has proven it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Considering the cost of an accredited online MBA in the United States to be about $25,000, there are countless online students like Chester Ludlow ready to jump through hoops just to get a sheepskin.
“Buying fake online college credentials is an increasingly common practice,” said Vicky Phillips, founder and CEO of GetEducated.com, a Vermont-based consumer group that publishes online college and university rankings and ratings related to affordability and credibility. “It's so easy to do that even a dog with a valid credit card can do it -- literally.”
Phillips said Rochville University is one of scores of fraudulent institutions operating out of foreign post office boxes that advertise cheap, fast degrees online – for a flat fee. Like so many others, Rochville claims legitimacy through the Board of Online Universities Accreditation and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation. The problem is: Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor the Council of Higher Education Accreditation recognizes these agencies.
To police these agencies, GetEducated.com houses consumer reports and alerts on more than 300 degree mills in the United States that routinely sell diplomas and supporting transcripts. And for good reason: In a 2009, GetEducated.com found that 80 percent of its site users would lie about their educational background if it resulted in a better job that they personally believed they were qualified for, but being held back from.
Another GetEducated.com study, in 2010, of LinkedIn resume listings found an alarming number of high-level career officials and professionals touting flimsy paper pedigrees and publicly listing degrees from fake colleges including Rochville University, the pug's alma mater.
Of the 457 LinkedIn members listing online degrees from Rochville University, alums included an assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch Commodities; a language instructor at the University of Virginia; and a criminal justice consultant -- retired from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Chief Fraud Division.
Phillips said at least 75 percent of the students opting for phony online degrees know exactly what they are doing. Why? She said there is little risk involved with lying on resumes about college credentials, especially when taken into consideration that a fake MBA at $500 can be earned in less than 30 days; yet, translates into a $10,000 raise once completed.
“There is a very, very low chance of getting caught and a very, very high pay out for salary and advancement potential,” she said. “The risk to reward ratio favors out-and-out lying.”
For example, Phillips states that less than 40 percent of all employers check educational credentials. Those that do are more than likely not going to check to see if the college which granted a degree is properly accredited or not.
“Remember, almost all degree mills are accredited -- but by fake agencies -- agencies that the fake colleges themselves own and operate,” said Phillips. “Bear in mind also that in most states it is not illegal to operate a college that is not accredited by any agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.”
Phillips pointed out that it is also not illegal in most states to use fake college credentials to gain employment. And in the few states where it is illegal – Texas, for instance – forged or fake educational credentials typically carry with them a misdemeanor offense.
Even employers willing to practice due diligence before making a hiring decision are often swayed to accept the legitimacy of these phony outfits because they provide diplomas and transcripts as well as references, website portals and 1-800 phone numbers used to obtain graduation verification.
Today, thanks to career resources obtained from these diploma mills, Chester Ludlow is able to boast perfect attendance during his online experience to potential employers – if there were any.
Instead, Phillips said, the pug, whose breed is known for its exceptional intelligence, uses his enhanced paper pedigree to attract lady poodles and as an official watchdog for GetEducated.com’s diploma mill police service.