More US States Step Up To Fight Against Diploma Mills
Since the launch of the Accredibase 2011 Report, Idaho lawmakers have approved a bill which will make it easier for the Board of Education to target bogus education providers operating in the state.


Since the launch of the Accredibase 2011 Report, Idaho lawmakers have approved a bill which will make it easier for the Board of Education to target bogus education providers operating in the state. Yesterday the “anti-diploma mill” bill was unanimously passed by the senate.

The step was taken following concerns that unauthorized schools are moving into Idaho from other jurisdictions that have recently tightened their controls. The bill will allow the Board to issue cease-and-desist letters against those violating or continuing to violate the legislation. Criminal penalties for those knowingly or wilfully violating the rules could include a $10,000 fine and up to 12 months imprisonment.

Idaho’s State Coordinator for Private Colleges & Proprietary Schools, Harv Lyter said: "Idaho is very proud of our progress toward becoming a Diploma Mill-free zone. We know there's still a lot of work to do, but this year's legislative initiatives will go a long way toward reaching that goal!"

State University of Sheffield, offering “accredited life experience degrees”, is one such unauthorized institution claiming to be based in Idaho. It is one of a series of almost identical Web sites advertising schools purporting to be in either Twin Falls, Idaho or in Spain. State University of Sheffield, which should not be confused with the legitimate University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, claims to be accredited by the World Higher Education Accreditation Society (WHEAS). The Web site gives no address or telephone number for the “university”, which offers a degree based entirely on life experience. What’s more, the web sites of both the accreditor and the university are hosted at the same IP address!

The news from Idaho follows the announcement on 22 February that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has signed a bill that will make it illegal to use false academic credentials to apply for jobs, college or in connection with any business, employment or public office in Missouri. The new bill will target those using both faked certificates and credentials from bogus universities. Missouri’s Assistant Commissioner of Higher Education, Leroy Wade said: “The new legislation calls attention to the problem and puts people on notice that using phony documents is a crime.”[1]

The recent Accredibase 2011 Report reviewed other legislative developments over the last year, starting with the introduction of the “Diploma Mills” Bill by Congressman Tim Bishop (D-NY). The Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act proposes to protect the integrity of bona fide qualifications by targeting the sale and use of fraudulent degrees. If passed into law, the Act would give the Federal Trade Commission a mandate to act against bogus degree providers and require it to report these providers to the Secretary of Education, and ultimately make this information available to the public. The Act also proposes to set down in law definitions of the terms Diploma Mill, Accreditation Mill and Degree-granting Institution.

After a long period with no licensing, California finally reinstated a program of approval for higher education institutions. California has long been a haven for diploma mills owing to the lack of regulation. The state had no law regarding the authorization of non-public higher education from 1 July 2007 until February 2010, when the new Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education adopted emergency regulations.[2] According to Contreras (2009), degree mills have argued that the lack of law means no state approval is required to issue degrees; anyone with a corporate existence in California can issue valid degrees. Accredibase indicates that a total of 143 mills operate or have operated in the state, with a further 173 suspect institutions under investigation. It remains to be seen whether action will be taken against those operating without approval, and whether we will see a drop in the number of unaccredited and unapproved degree providers with a California link.

The Netherlands also took steps last year to make life more difficult for bogus universities. After the UK, Italy and Belgium, Accredibase reveals that the Netherlands is the 4th most popular location in Europe for diploma mill operators - 34 claim to be located in the country. Paul Zoontjens, Professor of Education Law at Tilburg University, was commissioned to investigate the possibility of protecting the designation “university” in law following a resolution by the Dutch parliament in June 2009. Accredibase interviewed Professor Zoontjens last year about his research and the effect the proposed changes might have on diploma mills.[3] Zoontjens suggests that using law to differentiate between institutions would mean that those designated as “universities” would be automatically susceptible to supervision by the state, and could not apply degree-awarding power without being in breach of the rules. Protecting the term “university” is an important step toward protecting the public against diploma mills. Many would not question the credentials of an entity using this title, and would expect it to be regulated.

While the tightening of laws to discourage diploma mill operators should be welcomed, the challenge of dealing with diploma mills remains a complicated one. Operators are becoming more and more adept at covering their tracks on the Internet. They often have no actual physical presence at their published location and can change their web sites in an instant if required. While bogus universities can operate on the Internet with no geographical ties, judicial systems cannot. It is clear, however, that bogus degrees pose too much of a threat to be ignored by legislators and law enforcers.

Zoontjens highlights the need for effective law enforcement and international cooperation, including the exchange of information between countries and jurisdictions.[4] Accredibase provides an international platform for sharing information regarding diploma mills and assessing the validity of issued accreditations and qualifications. Therefore, as Zoontjens suggests, tools such as Accredibase may well aid enforcement of higher education regulations in the future.

[1] Missouri Department of Higher Education (2011) Gov. Nixon Signs Diploma Mill Legislation. 22 February 2011. Available at: http://dhe.missouri.gov/pressreleases/pr_070909.html

[2] Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, Department of Consumer Affairs (2010) Transition Plan [Online] Available at: http://www.bppe.ca.gov/about_us/transition.shtml (Accessed 29 December 2010).

[3]Accredibase (2010) Accredibase October Newsletter [Online] Available at: http://www.accredibase.com/upload/documents/accredibase_accredibasenewsletteroctober.pdf.

[4] Zoontjens, P. (2010) Protecting 'University' as a Designation -- Analysis and Comparison of the Legal Position in Several Countries. Education Law Journal, 11(2).

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