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Statement of Lieutenant Commander Claudia Gelzer
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
"Bogus Degrees and Unmet Expectations: Are Taxpayer Dollars Subsidizing Diploma Mills? (Day 2)"
May, 12 2004

Good morning, Madam Chairman, members of the Committee,

My name is Claudia Gelzer.  I=m a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Coast Guard.  I joined the staff of the Committee on Governmental Affairs a year ago as a detailee.  As part of the Committee=s team investigating diploma mills, I enrolled at a non-accredited school and took classes.  Our goal in this endeavor was to conduct a first-hand evaluation of the quality of education provided by an institution in this category.

The school that I attended, Kennedy-Western University, is successfully attracting thousands of students each year.  The school earned almost $25 million in 2003.  It has nearly 10,000 students currently enrolled. 

I would like to point out that Kennedy-Western is just one of many like institutions operating in the nation today.  It is not the Committee=s intention to single them out as the only example of an unaccredited institution.  The reason the school became a focus of our investigation is because of claims in its catalog that some twenty federal agencies and entities have paid for employees to get degrees from the school.  It has been operating for 20 years.  It has a professional-looking website and a glossy brochure, and offers 19 areas of study, including business, engineering, and health administration.

The school operates strictly online and through the mail.  There is no physical campus, but rather office buildings in California and Wyoming.  Kennedy-Western offers bachelor=s, master=s and doctorate degrees.  The school is not currently, nor has it ever been, accredited. 

I first called Kennedy-Western in July of 2003.  I introduced myself as a Coast Guard officer looking to earn a master=s degree in environmental engineering.  I was connected to an admissions counselor who told me I was in good company.  The engineering programs were among the schools most popular.  Given my military background, she said I was probably well on my way to earning a master=s degree already.  She told me Kennedy-Western believes students should get credit for what they=ve already learned.  An admissions board would evaluate my experiences and determine how much credit I should receive, and how many classes I would actually have to take to get my master=s degree.

In the weeks following my initial contact with the school, I received and submitted an application to Kennedy-Western, which asked about my life and work experience.  I provided a current resume, deleting only the reference to my master=s degree in environmental public policy.  My resume listed my bachelor=s degree in journalism and my 12 years of work experience in the Coast Guard.  They also asked for any seminars, workshops or on-the-job training I had completed.  I listed six seminars and four training courses I had attended related to oil spill response and boat accident investigation.  This information was accepted at face value by Kennedy-Western.  They asked for no proof or documentation.  As a note, I have no formal engineering training.

Not long after, I was admitted into the program.  My counselor was effusive about how well my qualifications had rated with the school admissions board.  In fact, she said, my rating was one of the highest she had ever seen.  As a result, the school was immediately prepared to grant me credit for 43 percent of the degree requirements.  To drive this point home, my counselor paused and said, AClaudia, you=re only five classes away from your master=s.@  I would also have to write a final paper worth 12 credits.  In other words, Kennedy-Western was prepared to waive six master=s level classes in engineering based solely on my claims of professional training. 

As part of the investigation, the Governmental Affairs staff wanted to compare Kennedy-Western=s procedure for granting life experience with those of accredited schools.  Committee staff surveyed 20 accredited schools that offer a master=s degree in environmental engineering.  None of the 20 schools offer credit for life experience.  A more expansive survey of 1,100 accredited institutions and their life experience policy, conducted by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, revealed that only 6 percent of the schools offer credit for life experience at the master=s level. 

In response to a formal query from the Committee, Kennedy-Western told us they admit only students who can Ademonstrate applicable work experience.@  We were told that every student in the master=s program is given between 33 and 60 percent credit toward a degree for their life and work experience.  In fact, documents produced by Kennedy-Western indicated that nearly half of all students in its master=s programs have received more than 55 percent credit for their experience.  Again, I received roughly 43 percent toward an engineering master=s degree.

After discussing the results of my evaluation, my admissions counselor told me she had good news about my tuition.  My degree would fall at the lower end of the school=s tuition scale because of all my experience, she said.  That amount was $6,525 payable all at once or in installments with no less than 25 percent down.  I asked why the school charged for its degrees in a lump sum.  As you know, the federal government can only reimburse employees for courses, not a degree.  So I told her, the Coast Guard would only reimburse me by the class.  She said not to worry.  Kennedy-Western could make it look like they were charging me per class by drawing up a bill reflecting a course-by-course breakdown.  She said they had just done this for a student from NASA.  This chart shows what the school devised for me to accommodate the Coast Guard=s requirement.  In our interviews with former Kennedy-Western employees, we were told that it was common practice for the school to alter the bill to satisfy private and federal employers for reimbursement purposes.

My counselor wanted to get me started right away.  I needed only to select a payment option.  I told her before I could sign up, I needed to confirm that the Coast Guard would pay for a Kennedy-Western degree.  She asked if it would help to see some cancelled checks the school had received from other federal agencies that I could show to my boss to prove to him that other agencies had paid for the program. 

          The next day, she faxed three cancelled U. S. Treasury checks payable to Kennedy-Western University.  They were tuition payments for employees of the Air Force, the Army, and the Defense Finance Accounting Service in amounts ranging from $3,400 to $4,800.  Upon receipt of the checks, I paid my first installment of 25 percent of my degree costs with a GAO credit card used for undercover work. 

I chose two classes B Hazardous Waste Management and Environmental Law & Regulatory Compliance B from the environmental engineering curriculum.  I got the textbooks for about $100 each from a book distributor affiliated with Kennedy-Western.  The course guidelines arrived by email, and contained no actual syllabus.  Instead, the guidelines included three basic instructions: read your textbook cover-to-cover at least twice; take the enclosed sample exam; and take the final exam.  No papers, homework assignments, on-line discussions, or interaction with the professor was required. 

Kennedy-Western courses are not what most of us have experienced at the University level.  Instead of structured interaction between professors and fellow students in a classroom B including homework, papers and a series of exams B Kennedy-Western requires students to pass one open-book, multiple-choice test for each class.  A student may retake this exam if they do not pass the first time.

          Once enrolled in my classes, I was assigned a student advisor.  I called her to ask how long I had to wait before requesting my final exams.  There was no time restriction, she said.  If I felt prepared to take the tests the day after tomorrow, that would be fine.  I ordered the Hazardous Waste Management test first.  I had neither read nor reviewed the textbook.  My objective was to determine whether the test was in fact legitimate.  If so, having not prepared, I assumed I would not be able to pass it. 

I had three hours to complete 100 questions.  I was able to answer most of them by simply looking up a key word in the index, turning to that section of the text, and finding the answer.  However, I got stuck on several questions, some that were worded unclearly and several for which there appeared to be no correct answer in the choices provided.  Ultimately, I ran out of time.

          After submitting the test, the school notified me that I had not passed.  In that same letter, I was offered a make-up exam for $50.  I began to think perhaps Kennedy-Western=s program might be more rigorous than we had heard.  But then I took a closer look at my test.  While reviewing my answers, I noticed that a number of questions had been graded incorrectly.  I had given the right answer, but the questions were still marked wrong.  I also confirmed that several questions had no possible correct answer provided in the choices. 

The school has an active online chat room for students called AThe Pub.@  I had seen a lot of complaints from other students about the quality of Kennedy-Western exams.  In this chart, you can see that one student said, and I quote, AI do not know about yours, but some of my exams were terrible.  One referred to a diagram that was not on the test, and others you can barely read because of very poor English.@  Another student said, quote, AMy advice to those who are studying hard is to recheck their exam results and challenge the score if you believe you have the right answers.  I was surprised to find out that all my exams contained some errors, which I had to challenge and correct!  I guess a lot of us are experiencing similar issues across different majors.@ 

So, I filed a grade challenge.  Ultimately, the school declared the test invalid acknowledging, quote, Asignificant errors.@  I received several calls from the class instructor.  She apologized for the poor quality of the test and acknowledged that in addition to making administrative corrections, she would also reword several of the questions to make them clear.  The school also sent a letter of apology, and I was told that my grade would be expunged.  I could order a retake exam at no charge.  Before ordering a new test, I reviewed the textbook layout and took the practice exam.  I spent just under eight hours on these activities. 

I assumed the school would send a different version of the exam the second time.  The retake, however, was identical to the first, with the exception of the corrections the instructor had made.  I had no trouble passing it.

I then focused on my second course, Environmental Law & Regulatory Compliance.  The textbook for the course was not a textbook at all, but rather a lawyers= desk reference entitled, Environmental Law Deskbook, which presented a problem.  This is a 988-page reference guide containing 22 environmental statutes written in 10-point typeface.  It contains no legal summaries, annotations, or any type of statutory analysis of environmental law - in short, no context whatsoever.    Again, the course guidelines recommended that students read the entire book twice and review questions at the end of each chapter.  But this book had no study questions.  It consisted of nothing more than the text of each statute.  I wasn=t sure how to study a book like this.  To prepare for the exam, I found on my own an environmental law treatise and studied it for about eight hours.

 Again, the test was open book, multiple-choice, 100 questions.  Largely with the help of the alternative text I had found, I was able to pass it without a problem.  Nevertheless, the class was a profound disappointment.  The textbook prescribed by Kennedy-Western was essentially useless as a tool to increase a student=s understanding of environmental law or to analyze environmental statutes and their genesis.  After passing the test, I emailed the professor through my student advisor asking why he had selected such an ineffective book for the class.  I never heard back.

          Not long after, I withdrew from the school, as by then we had a good sense of Kennedy-Western=s academic program.  With just 16 hours of study, I had completed 40 percent of the course requirements for a master=s degree.

In reviewing student dialogue in the school=s online chat room, I found numerous postings about the quality of Kennedy-Western=s program and its lack of accreditation.  I sensed genuine disappointment and even desperation from students questioning whether they had made a mistake.  Many admitted they had not understood the importance of accreditation when they enrolled.  Some students spoke of feeling Aduped@ by the school.  Several questioned why it seemed like so many students at Kennedy-Western had to take only four or five classes.

On the other hand, there were students who seemed completely at ease with the lack of program demands.  The chat room included regular exchanges about how to prepare for Kennedy-Western exams.  It was openly acknowledged that test answers could often be found directly in the textbook glossaries.  This chart shows some actual quotes from the chat room.  One student wrote, AI=d like to share general advice that helped me score [an] A on 4 of my courses!  I highly recommend that you be familiar with the Glossary and the Index of the textbook.  Some of the questions were copied from the glossary!@ Another student echoed that sentiment, AI took the test this morning, an[d] got a 91%.  I [was] surprised myself on how many answers were straight from the glossary.@  There were multiple postings like this. 

As for my first-hand experience with Kennedy-Western courses and passing the tests, I found that basic familiarity with the textbook was all I needed.  I was able to find exam answers without having read a single chapter of the text.  As for what I learned, the answer is very little.  The coursework provided only a cursory insight into management of hazardous waste or environmental regulations and law.  Certainly not at the level one would expect from an environmental engineer.

          Aside from a multiple-choice exam and someone to grade it, based on my experience, a student at Kennedy-Western receives little value for their roughly $6,000 in tuition.  I think that=s why I found so many who expressed disillusionment on the school=s chat room.  Having stood in their shoes for a few months, I can understand why they feel betrayed.

I can also understand the feelings of a number of former Kennedy-Western employees interviewed in our investigation.  A former admissions manager stated that there was no value to a Kennedy-Western education, and that he was Aembarrassed@ to have ever been a part of the school.  A former faculty member said Kennedy-Western=s curriculum development system is broken.  A former employee of the student services department said the work at Kennedy-Western simply does not qualify a student for a bachelor=s degree.  This concludes my written testimony.  I=d be happy to answer any questions that members may have.

Printable Version

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Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
340 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510