Betty McCollum and George Gollin: Sometimes, danger lurks in the diploma on the wall

We need to shut down the mills that produce fake degrees -- for both personal and national security.

Betty McCollum and George Gollin

Published: November 26, 2007

A talented young woman, 18 years old and already a successful filmmaker, actress and model, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. America's best medical centers say they can do nothing more to help.

In despair, she turns to a doctor who says his treatments will make her well. On his office wall are diplomas from the "St. Luke School of Medicine." The doctor prescribes an odd vegetable drink and insists it will heal her, but only if no other food is eaten.

This treatment, which the woman strictly follows, does nothing to relieve her pain. Instead, it condemns her to spend the last weeks of her life not only battling the final stages of cancer but starving herself to a weight of 80 pounds.

This is what John Curran did to Taylor Alves in 2002, with the assistance of a phony medical degree from the "St. Luke School of Medicine." For $3,500, this completely fraudulent "diploma mill" mailed Curran two official-looking degrees -- no training, no coursework and no questions asked. Curran then sold his services as a physician in Rhode Island.

"Doctor" Curran has since been convicted of wire fraud and money laundering and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. The St. Luke diploma mill, however, has been more difficult to stop. Its operators claim locations in the United States and in several African countries. Authorities in Liberia have ordered it closed, but its American operators continue their activities unimpeded.

Spurred by the rise of the Internet, St. Luke is just one example of an ever-increasing number of fraudulent academic institutions issuing bogus degrees.

Allen Ezell, who ran the FBI unit that used to prosecute diploma mills, estimates that scam schools in America now sell more degrees each year than are awarded by the entire 34-campus University of California and Cal State systems.

The dangers posed by diploma mills are real. It is bad enough that persons using fake degrees obtain undeserved status or swindle unwitting victims, but there is a real danger when phony physicians treat the sick, untrained engineers design bridges or teachers with purchased credentials instruct our children.

Diploma mills also pose a serious threat to national security.

A few years ago, a Syrian chemical weapons expert applied for three advanced degrees from "James Monroe University" -- along with a note saying that he wanted the degrees as soon as possible in order to acquire a skilled worker visa and remain in the United States.

Within weeks, the phony James Monroe University sent Mohamed Syed diplomas in chemistry and engineering. The only question asked was whether he would pay with Visa, MasterCard, or American Express.

Fortunately, Syed was not a terrorist, but a federal investigator posing as one. The elaborate diploma mill that provided these degrees, however, has sold thousands more to customers in the Middle East who could use them for illegal entry into the United States.

The alleged operators of James Monroe now face criminal indictments -- but the damage they have done is extensive. Domestically, the diploma mill's customers and victims include hundreds of federal employees (seeking to obtain jobs or promotions), as well as teachers, army officers, nurses, fire chiefs and even a college president.

Taxpayers are picking up the tab for this fraud, with hundreds of millions of dollars in excess salary paid out each year to federal employees who have gained promotions through fake degrees they knowingly purchased or unwittingly accepted.

The problem of diploma mills is too large to be addressed by state and local law enforcement alone. Modern diploma mills are often multinational enterprises. The James Monroe University scam had personnel, mail drops and affiliated "schools" spanning 18 states and 22 countries. It will take full engagement by federal authorities to suppress the diploma mill industry.

The Diploma Integrity Protection Act is the first federal legislation since the creation of the Internet to directly confront the problem of diploma mills and their fraud schemes. On Nov. 15, the House Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved a major higher education bill that included the language of this legislation.

If passed, this bill would empower the U.S. Departments of Education and Homeland Security to stop the use of fake degrees for purposes of federal employment and immigration, and direct the Federal Trade Commission to act against diploma mills that claim to have been recognized as legitimate universities. It would also assemble a commission of higher education, law enforcement and legislative experts to promote federal-state cooperation in the identification of diploma mills and enable efficient enforcement along with swift prosecution. The bill now goes to a vote in the full House.

As consumers, employers and citizens, we must be able to trust that the higher education credentials of a doctor, engineer or technician are authentic and valid. Diploma mills are sophisticated scams that undermine the credibility of legitimate professionals and must be stopped. It is time to crack down on these bogus degree factories and the scam artists who use them to take advantage of us. Congress needs to take the first step and act now.

Betty McCollum, D-Minn, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. George Gollin is a professor of physics at the University of Illinois and a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.