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Screw You U

Why waste time and money on college? For about $300, you can buy yourself a degree -- or three, if you want, from hundreds of Internet sites dedicated to fattening your status. And their wallets.
 
 
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For a mere $1,100, I could be Dr. Silver. Oh wait, tack on a few hundred extra, because if I'm getting my doctorate, it might as well be magna cum laude. And I'd like to be on the Dean's List. And, well, dad always wanted a doctor in the family.

Now he can have one -- schooled or not. The concept of sitting through class, taking tests and learning has practically become obsolete in our morally bankrupt, educationally depraved society. Why waste time and money on college? For about $300, you can buy yourself a degree -- or three, if you want, from hundreds of Internet sites dedicated to fattening your status. And their wallets.

In the last two weeks, I've received three copies of the same email from a British-based company that calls itself the University Degree Program:

"Obtain a prosperous future, money earning power and the admiration of all. Diplomas from prestigious, non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience. No required tests, classes, books, or interviews. Bachelors, masters, MBA and doctorate (Ph.D.) diplomas available in the field of your choice. No one is turned down."

It definitely deserved a phone call.

After leaving a message on the firm's Texas-based answering machine, a representative called me three days later. "We give full credit for life experience," he said. "We take your word on your experience." He was pleasant enough but frustrated by my questions about the program. I explained that I simply wanted to see a pamphlet, something in writing, before making my decision. He insisted that they could provide nothing of the sort -- only the degree.

And, best yet: "Your graduation day corresponds to your experience -- to blend in," he told me, I guess meaning that if I wanted my degree dated 20 years ago, well, they wouldn't tell anyone if I wouldn't.

Guess they didn't realize I would.

Getting Edumacated

Degree mills are popping up everywhere, thanks to the Internet. But they're nothing new. In the late 1970s, the FBI launched DipScam (diploma scam), an operation run by a team of agents who investigated such institutions in the United States. The team closed numerous schools, sending their operators off for a stint in the Big House. But when Special Agent Allen Ezell -- head of the operation -- retired in 1992, DipScam was through.

So, with no special task force, there's even less oversight now than during the mail-order-ministers heyday.

One vocal activist and former member of DipScam is Dr. John Bear, co-author of Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally and College Degrees by Mail and Modem, among other books.

According to Bear, 481 new Internet degree mills have set up shop this year -- that's an almost 50 percent increase since last year. And it's only going to get worse.

"The essence of the problem is: Are the people who buy these things really being fooled, or are they buying them for their own nefarious purposes?" Bear asks. He fears the latter.

One of the main reasons these businesses continue to flourish lies in the difficulty of legally defining just what a degree or diploma mill is. While some of these places simply ask for money, others may require a dissertation before awarding a doctorate. The situation gets sticky when there's actual course work done. Who's to say that someone's work doesn't merit recognition?

Bear also blames the media. Many nationally respected newspapers and magazines have no qualms about running degree mill ads. And the Internet makes it even easier. Bear doesn't see the problem decreasing any time soon.

"Public attention and awareness is the only hope I see," he says, "at least to the point of asking a few questions."

Education Here is Bad -- But Not That Bad

Nevada has few problems with fake degrees -- at least on the granting end of it, according to David Perlman, administrator for the Nevada Commission on Post Secondary Education. "Nevada law doesn't allow degree-granting institutions unless they're accredited," he says.

But that matters little in a time when Internet businesses have all but dissolved geographic boundaries.

One of the more vexing aspects of degree mills is that they tend to operate in other countries. They request that you wire money through, or send it to, a P.O. Box, making them very difficult to track down. And, as long as they're not operating in Nevada, there's little state officials can do.

On the hiring end, it may be another story, though. "No one in Nevada says 'If your degree's not accredited, we won't accept it.'" Perlman notes. "It's left up to individual business operators what they will and will not accept."

That's where it gets scary.

The main selling point for some of these places is convincing someone that through their life experience, they've already earned their degrees. Some institutions insist, then, that they're merely a vehicle for providing a piece of paper for something that's rightfully yours.

But when it comes to life experience, your word is often all that matters. Degree mills don't ask for phone numbers, addresses, or references. For all they know, you're an 8-year-old kid who got a hold of mom's credit card, copied a resume off the Internet, and decided to be called doctor. The credit card all but guarantees you that title.

Even more frightening is the profession that most frequents degree mills -- nuclear engineers. "[Nuclear engineers] don't need their doctorate," Bear explains, "But they want to be called doctor and get their salary increase."

He says he's also seen the fake degrees attached to such professions as heads of charities, neonatal nursing, burn-units employees, medical doctors and surgeons -- the list goes on and on.

Gonna Git Me a Degree

To test the difficulty of getting a degree, Las Vegas Weekly made some phone calls, filled out some applications, and sent some emails. The bottom line? Yep, a credit card can do just about anything.

One of the schools I applied to is accredited by Distance Graduation Accrediting Association, which proclaims on its Web site: "We do not seek approval from individual governments, but operate beyond frontiers of national or cultural interest which we consider fictitious in this century of boundless international education resources."

To Dr. Stephen Barrett, board chairman of Quackwatch Inc., a nonprofit corporation that combats health-related frauds, says the DGAA's self-description is simple: "That means they are not recognized in the United States, and may not be recognized elsewhere." Fair enough.

I applied to the "school" using a resume I'd copied off of the Internet, listing my extensive (nonexistent) computer experience. I received a reply the next day saying my resume had been approved -- all I needed to do was enroll (i.e. give them my credit card number), and I'd be a doctor in 14 days. I declined enrollment.

Some diploma mills aren't shy about admitting their purpose, either. At degrees-r-us.com you can get your degree in just 10 business days. Their site reads: "The University has no campus, neither faculty, nor student body. It exists on paper and on the Web for that reason, the degrees will not be recognized by other educational institutions."

The Web site is typical: They won't disclose the name of the university that will appear on your degree until your check is in their hand -- allegedly to protect the university's integrity.

The DGAA program even has a budget diploma. It costs $200, as opposed to the Bachelors, for $385; and it's printed on 8.5- by 11-inch paper, rather than the 14-by-11-inch you get if you pay more. You can also get your B.A., M.A. and Ph.D package for $1,400.

Degrees-R-us and graduatenow.com are actually accompanied by a disclaimer, that reads: "These college diplomas are being distributed to boost your confidence and esteem. By ordering a diploma or transcripts, you are certifying that you will not misuse the diploma, the listing in the University's records or any other improper use."

Obviously, $1,400 is a lot to pay for a boost of confidence. I hear a couple shots of whiskey does the same thing -- for a lot less.