Recently, a good friend of mine went to work for a local school district. Like millions of other people in the world, he ended up with an incompetent jerk for a boss. Many things transpired that are irrelevant to this post, but the end result was that I happened to look up his boss on LinkedIn and discover something very interesting. His boss has a degree in CS from Almeda University and that degree was necessary for him to get his job. The twist is that Almeda University is an unaccredited diploma mill (they once gave an associate’s degree to a dog). So, I reported my friend's boss and he’ll likely lose his job which means that his career is dead in the water. He’s going to have a hard time finding another public sector job or anything in management. And, it will be much easier to restore my friend’s good name with his boss fired and discredited.
Note: I would have reported this guy even if he was a nice guy. I think our reliance on paper credentials goes too far, but I'm still offended by people who try to fake their way through.
It’s pretty easy to get away with being a jerk or overstating your skills, especially when you’re the boss, but credentials are objective. You either have a degree from a real university or you don’t. You’re Cisco certified or you’re not. These aren’t always good measures of job performance or skill, but they are easy to verify. You may be tempted to buy a fake degree in order to get a promotion or to get a leg up in your job search. It’s really not worth it. It may work in the short term, but when someone finds out, you’re going to get fired and be left with a black mark on your resume.
Don’t be fooled
While many people purchase fake degrees knowing full well that they’re trying to scam an employer, some people allow themselves to believe that they’re getting the real thing or that they really deserve to be awarded a degree (or even several) based on their life experience. Here’s how to tell if you’re getting the real thing.
In the U.S., any legitimate college needs to be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There’s a full list of recognized accreditors here: http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred ... n_pg6.html
If a U.S. school is not accredited by one of the accreditors on that list, it’s not a legitimate college or university. Every accredited school will list their accreditation information on the school website and every accreditor has a publicly available list of the schools that it accredits. It takes about five minutes to verify that a school is real.
Some schools will have additional accreditations that are specific to a certain program. For instance, a medical school will have its MD program accredited by the LCME and an engineering program might have ABET accreditation. These are positives and may add to the prestige of a degree or be necessary for professional licensure. But, these are in addition to the basic national or regional accreditation necessary to be a legitimate college and qualify for federal financial aid.
A quick test
Almost every real college or university in the U.S. has a website in the .edu domain. Very few use anything else. Be extra careful if a school does not use a .edu address, but don’t take the domain name as conclusive proof that a school is legitimate. Many fake schools are unable to get a .edu address and use .org, .com or .net. Legitimate non-US schools probably will not use .edu (British universities for instance use .ac.uk).
Why does accreditation matter?
Accreditation is what gives a college its legitimacy. Employers will recognize degrees from accredited schools. Most employers, especially in the public sector, will not recognize any degree from an unaccredited school. Many, if not most, employers will fire you for using a degree they consider bogus. Also, credits earned at one school can (usually) be transferred to another and students at accredited schools can get financial aid.
Real degrees require you to complete a significant amount of coursework. A bachelor’s degree usually requires about 120 “semester units” of coursework. Most courses are three or four units. At a brick-and-mortar school, three units translates to 54 hours of time spent in class. Online classes usually do not use seat time but the workload is based on what would be required in an equivalent on-campus class. A bachelor’s degree takes most people four to five years to complete if they attend school full-time.
Prior learning assessments and life/work experience
Many diploma mills award degrees based on “life experience”. Real colleges and universities do not do this. Some legitimate schools, especially online schools and those with degree completion programs, will award some credits based on your work experience or allow you to place out of certain classes based on your work history. This is legit, but there is a limit to how many credits you can earn this way. The key difference between diploma mills and legit schools in this regard is that diploma mills tend to award degrees wholesale and require little documentation while real colleges award credit for one class at a time and require documentation for each class showing why your experience is equivalent to a college-level course.
At a diploma mill, you might be able to get a B.S. in IT or Computer Science based on the fact that you’ve worked in IT for 5-10 years. The reason that a diploma mill will require some relevant work experience is to offer some pretense at legitimacy and to help people feel like they’ve earned their degree. A diploma mill might also require a “student” to write a paper for their degree. This does not make it legitimate.
At a real university, your 5-10 years of experience in IT might allow you to get credit for or place out of a few classes. Real example. I finished my degree online and I was able to place out of two courses and to get credit for a couple more. I placed out of an Intro to Databases course based on the fact that I had done some database programming professionally and had taken three different database training courses. I similarly placed out of Intro to Networking. The documentation I had to provide for these courses was not extensive since I didn’t want credit, I just wanted to start out at a higher level.
When I did a “prior learning assessment” to get credit for an upper division computer organization course, the documentation was much more extensive. I provided a resume, a letter describing why my experience was equivalent/relevant, three letters verifying my work experience, a published article of mine and an annotated bibliography. My experience was relevant not just because I had worked in IT--that wouldn't be enough--but because I particularly had experience doing assembly language programming and other low-level work and thus had a very good understanding of computer arithmetic, the CPU, memory organization, how machine/assembly code implements high-level languages, etc. In addition to this, I had to complete what was (essentially) a take-home exam that, when completed, ran to about 17 pages. That was for one course.
Colleges and universities may also award some credit for training and certifications. For instance, you might be able to get credit for a networking class or two because you’ve completed your CCNA. Or, a college might award you credit for some IT or electronics courses based on military training courses that you completed. Again, they won’t award you a degree. Each training course or certification will be tied to one or two courses at that college, the number of units that you can earn this way will be limited and only certain certifications or training courses will qualify. In fact, most training courses outside the military do not qualify.
Colleges and universities rarely award credits based on life experience and the circumstances in which they will do so are very limited. For instance, a college might give you credit for a couple of courses in French or waive its foreign language requirement because you spent several years living and working in France or attended high school there. The college will require you to provide documentation and might ask you to take an exam verifying that you can actually speak French.
Flat rate degrees
Most schools charge tuition based on the number of units that you enroll in. Some charge by the semester and let you take as many classes as you want (up to some limit). Diploma mills often charge a flat rate. Almeda University (diploma mill), for instance, charges $500 for an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree. They charge $1,500 for a Ph.D and require you to submit a paper.
A thesis is not a book report
Some diploma mills will require you to submit a paper, particularly for a doctorate degree. This is just to help you feel like you earned the degree. A real doctoral thesis is not a book report. A real thesis can be anywhere from about a hundred pages to several hundred pages. They are mini-books that provide original research on a topic. Note: when I say research I mean investigation that advances the field—conducting experiments, gathering evidence, analyzing statistics--not library or Google research where you spend time combing other sources for the answer. Real theses include copious references, often require extensive outside evidence (e.g. statistical data) and are the result of years of effort.