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Degree Mills: The Impact on Students and Society

and uncertain period of apprenticeship become autonomous
professors who negotiate the number of assistantships, thus
replicating as professors what they experienced in the
Mittelbau. For sound reasons, a 2002 reform was intended to
oppose the negative consequences of the long period of
apprenticeship and to increase the institutional control over
professors. Merit-based salaries were thus introduced for all
new professors. The resources they receive when they are
recruited cover three to five years and are renegotiated accord-
ing to their performance. However, most academics find the
new income system less satisfactory than the former. On top of
that, the reform creates quasi tenure-track positions for young
scholars, who thus become more independent from senior
It is too early to tell if these new positions will lead more
easily to professorships as there are currently fewer than 800.
This turnabout may discourage academics in the traditional
Mittelbau, who still experience the control of professors but
know that if they themselves become professors the long
apprenticeship period may be undermined by an autonomous
apprenticeship; professors would also face income conditions
that are simultaneously less attractive.
Several European countries—including Germany, France,
and Russia—retain a system that requires a second doctoral
dissertation to be completed before a person can attain the
highest academic rank, thus adding midcareer stress and
maintaining an old arrangement that may have worked in the
days before mass higher education but is now dysfunctional
and widely criticized.
We are not prepared to offer our mock ranking since it would
be difficult to award a top rank to a single impaired academic
career system; there is much competition. In fact, global trends
indicate that the path to an academic career is becoming more
difficult and less attractive. This pattern will not help the
improvement of universities worldwide. For an academic sys-
tem or a university to be successful, it requires an effective,
fair, and transparent means of ensuring that an academic
career is possible, that a professional and transparent process
is attractive for scholars, and that an evaluation system is in
place so that merit can be rewarded and appropriate selections
made. Scholars entering the profession need access to a clear
and achievable career path and assurance that high standards
of performance provide career stability and success.
Procedures must be rigorous and meritocratic, and institu-
tions must have confidence that only competence will be
rewarded. At the same time, evaluation systems must not be
overly complicated. Mobility within academic systems is desir-
able. The various aspects of academic performance—including
teaching, research, and service to the university and society—
must be assessed, although the balance among these elements
may vary according to the mission of the specific institution.
Career stability and a guarantee of academic freedom must be
ensured. An American-style tenure system performs this role,
but there are other arrangements as well. Evaluation systems,
of course, need to take into account national traditions and
realities. One thing is clear—universities and systems that
score high on the dysfunctionality rankings will find it difficult
to succeed in a competitive world.
Degree Mills: The Impact on
Students and Society
Judith S. Eaton and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic
Judith S. Eaton is President of the Council for Higher Education
Accreditation, Washington DC, USA. E-mail: and
Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic is Chief, Section for Reform, Innovation and
Quality Assurance, Division of Higher Education, UNESCO, Paris, France.
Degree mills are impeding the efforts to assure quality in
higher education—a significant national issue for some
time and now an international concern. In response, the US-
based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
recently joined with the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to bring together an
informal group of higher education and quality
assurance/accreditation leaders to focus on degree mills.
The Traits of Degree Mills
Degree mills are spurious or even fraudulent providers of
higher education and training, offering degrees and certificates
that may be considered bogus. At first glance, a degree mill fre-
quently looks like a typical college or university, with publica-
tions (either print or electronic) displaying attractive campus
facilities, logos that appear steeped in tradition, and a list of
impressively credentialed faculty. Closer attention, however,
often reveals that the so-called “campus” is just a post office
box, the logo has been borrowed (and cleverly modified) from
a well-known institution, and the list of faculty contains indi-
viduals who “may” be teaching at some point but are not in fact
permanent professionals affiliated with the operation.
Without a single, commonly accepted, definition, most mills
international higher education
degree mills: a silent crisis
In France, the access to a first permanent position
as maître de conférences occurs rather early com-
pared with other countries
share certain characteristics. Their degrees can be purchased.
Little if any class attendance (onsite or online) is required. Few
assignments are required of students, and graduation require-
ments are minimal. The decision to award a degree may
involve disproportionate reliance on personal resumes or life
experience, neither of which may be well documented. The
degree mill may not have appropriate state licensure or author-
ity to operate. The name of the operation may have been cho-
sen to misleadingly resemble a well-known and highly regard-
ed college or university. To reinforce their credibility, some
mills misuse international organizations—such as UNESCO
or the World Health Organization—falsely claiming accredita-
tion by these bodies. Reliable evidence of quality, commonly
through the achievement of accredited status from a recog-
nized accreditor, may be lacking.
Older site- and mail-based delivery methods of degree mills
once meant that such providers could operate only regionally
or nationally. Now, however, degree mills aggressively use
Web-based delivery, enabling them to function internationally
with great ease. The export of degree mills tends to be domi-
nated by developed countries such as the United States, the
United Kingdom, and Australia; and import is often dominat-
ed by unsuspecting and unwilling, mainly developing, coun-
How many degree mills are operating is hard to gauge, and
all estimates of their numbers and scope of operation need to
be treated with caution. The financial scope of the degree mill
enterprise may range from at least one-half billion to billions
of dollars annually.
The Perils of Degree Mills
The harms caused by degree mills are so socially significant
that all actors involved in higher education have a stake in dis-
couraging the existence of such questionable providers. The
stakeholders include not only students but also employers and
government, as well as colleges and universities.
Students, whether deliberating seeking an easy path to a
degree or genuine victims of misleading degree mill advertis-
ing, are endangered because these often expensive credentials
are fraudulent and in many cases useless. Students and par-
ents in developing countries, attracted by the opportunity of a
foreign and more portable degree, are a particularly vulnerable
group. All too frequently, the credentials cannot be used for
obtaining employment or upgrading employment status.
Credits from a degree mill do not readily transfer to a legiti-
mate institution. If a baccalaureate degree is proven to be fake,
it cannot be used for entry to graduate school.
Employers are hurt when they unknowingly rely on make-
believe degrees as evidence of the competence of the employ-
ees they hire. An employee with such a degree is, at the very
least, an embarrassment. At the extreme, such a person is a
danger to others, especially when the bogus credential pur-
ports to affirm expertise in areas such as nursing or engineer-
ing. Lives are at stake.
Government suffers when millions of taxpayer dollars are
used for student grants and loans to pay the tuition costs of a
degree mill or when the government-as-employer provides
tuition assistance to its employees who “attend” degree mills.
Government (i.e., the taxpayer) is also obligated to sustain the
cost of enforcing regulations to fight degree mills—such as the
fraud investigations conducted over the years in the United
States by the Federal Trade Commission and the General
Accountability Office.
Colleges and universities are harmed because their legiti-
mate efforts to provide quality higher education are under-
mined. When degree mills capture and minimally transform
the names of reliable higher education providers for their own
questionable use, they cause confusion and doubt among
prospective students and the public. Public suspicion of degree
mills spills over on legitimate providers of higher education,
compromising the efforts of reliable institutions to sustain
public trust and serve the public interest.
National Policies
Since the 1990s, a number of countries have taken significant
action to contain degree mills: publishing lists of legitimate
institutions, promulgating laws to prevent the establishment
of degree mills, shutting down mills that have managed to
establish themselves, and sustaining ongoing public informa-
tion and awareness campaigns. At the recent meeting, men-
tioned earlier, of higher education and quality assurance lead-
ers concerning degree mills, individuals from Nigeria,
Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all spoke
of sustaining several of these practices.
Other efforts include China's publication of lists of recog-
nized foreign institutions and its requirement that foreign
institutions establish partnerships with Chinese institutions to
operate. In the United Kingdom, a system of alerts is in place
to inform the public about degree mills, coupled with advice
about whether government criteria for UK degree-awarding
international higher education
degree mills: a silent crisis
To reinforce their credibility, some mills misuse
international organizations—such as UNESCO or
the World Health Organization—falsely claiming
accreditation by these bodies.
The harms caused by degree mills are so socially sig-
nificant that all actors involved in higher education
have a stake in discouraging the existence of such
questionable providers.
powers and university title are met. In Nigeria, online degrees
from unaccredited institutions are banned and employers are
not supposed to accept fraudulent degrees. In Australia, the
term “university” is protected.
International Action
The recent focus on degree mills accompanies work on aca-
demic quality as higher education is increasingly internation-
alized. In Study Abroad, UNESCO published the CHEA Fact
Sheet on degree mills and accreditation mills developed in
2003 as part of its alerts to this phenomenon. UNESCO and
the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development
issued Guidelines for Quality Provision of Cross-Border Higher
Education in 2005. The Guidelines suggest tasks for the various
stakeholders in higher education—to protect quality for cross-
border higher education provision to safeguard against degree
mills. UNESCO has also recently launched a pilot, Portal on
Higher Education Institutions, that provides international
access to reliable countrywide lists of legitimate higher educa-
tion providers (
institutions). This positive listing makes it clear that institu-
tions that are not included may be suspect.
The international group brought together by CHEA and
UNESCO is working on an international effective practices
statement to address the problem of degree mills. The group is
also exploring additional strategies such as whether a perma-
nent international effort is needed to address rogue providers
and the feasibility of an ongoing international campaign to
raise public awareness.
This international effort is an ongoing need. Degree mills
will continue to be a problem for students, employers, govern-
ment, and higher education. They put a vital resource of our
countries at risk—namely, our extensive, diverse, and highly
effective higher education enterprise and the students who are
When Criminals Control the
Ministry of Education
George D. Gollin
George D. Gollin is professor of physics at the University of Illinois and a
member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Higher Education
Accreditation. Address: Department of Physics, University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA. E-mail:
The connection between education and personal economic
advantage drives a global market for higher education. But
much of the world cannot create additional university capacity
at a rate to match this demand. Diploma mills, businesses that
sell bogus degrees to customers in search of easy credentials,
comprise the dark response to these market forces. The recent
demise of a sophisticated American diploma mill provides
some insight into these abominations.
Paying Bribes to Great Effect
In 2002, Richard Novak traveled to Washington DC to bribe a
diplomat. Perhaps his experience as a car salesman in Arizona
served him well: he convinced Abdulah Dunbar, the Liberian
embassy's deputy chief of mission, to sell Liberian university
accreditation to “St. Regis University” for $2,250, considerably
less than Dunbar's original demand for $4,000. This first
transaction opened a conduit through which Dixie and Steve
Randock, the American owners of the St. Regis diploma mill,
began channeling payments and incentives to Liberian offi-
At that time Liberia was still a year from the end of its
bloody civil war. Mean life expectancy was 38 years, and infant
mortality was 15 percent. Much of Liberia's infrastructure had
been destroyed. Into this desperate landscape the Randocks
pretended to insert three universities: St. Regis, Robertstown,
and James Monroe. Their Web sites invited customers to con-
tact Dunbar in Washington or Andrew Kronyanh at Liberia's
embassy in Ghana, for verification of the schools' legitimacy.
All three mills claimed to be in Monrovia; a doctored campus
photograph showed a beautiful building in a pastoral setting.
But this was really Blenheim Palace, birthplace of the very
English Winston Churchill.
Hijacking the Ministry of Education
Dunbar was dismissed from the Liberian embassy in June
2003, complicating his task of vouching for St. Regis. The
Randocks sent Novak and Dunbar to Africa two months later
“with the specific intent to carry out the appropriate tasks plac-
ing [Dunbar] into the appropriate Liberian political office.” The
Randocks successfully achieved their ends: Dunbar was
returned to Washington a few months later as the embassy's
chief of mission.
By the end of 2003 the Randocks had come to control the
Ministry of Education's list of recognized colleges and univer-
sities, as well as the content of the Liberian embassy's Web
site. Through their officially sanctioned “National Board of
Education,” they sold Liberian accreditation directly to other
diploma mills such as “Southern Pacific University” and
American Coastline University.” Liberian officials under their
international higher education
degree mills: a silent crisis
The recent demise of a sophisticated American
diploma mill provides some insight into these
From the perspective of a developing country, in this case Vietnam, global competition in higher education is a two-edged sword. On one side are entities from exporting countries competing to provide educational services that could increase the capacity and quality of a higher education ystem constrained by limited financial and human resources. On the other are factors that could negatively affect the quality of higher education in Vietnam, such as unscrupulous foreign education providers. Thus, the sword can cut in two directions, or, as stated in a Vietnamese voice, “We can enjoy fresh winds to make our health better; concurrently, there may be unhealthy winds that do harm to us with weak bodies” (Nguyen et al. 2006, 2).
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