Diploma Mills and Bogus Degrees in the Federal Workforce

GAO looks at diploma mills and credentials of senior managers in the federal workforce.

How many senior level employees in the federal government have degrees from diploma mills?

The real answer: no one knows. That is the conclusion of the GAO’s Robert J. Cramer, Managing Director for GAO’s Office of Special Investigations, who testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the issue. A recent investigation found that there is a problem but there isn’t a system in place to accurately verify the validity of educational degrees claimed by federal employees.

Having said that, it is clear that some senior federal employees have obtained degrees from educational companies that do not require any work to earn the degrees.

GAO defines diploma mills as nontraditional, unaccredited, postsecondary schools offering degrees for a low flat fee, promoting the award of academic credits based on life experience, and not requiring classroom instruction.

To get some idea of whether the federal government has paid for degrees from diploma mills, investigators asked four of these schools to provide information concerning the number of current and former students identified in their records as federal employees and how much of the fees for these employees were paid by the federal government.

GAO also asked eight federal agencies for a list of senior employees, GS-15 or higher, and the names of any postsecondary institutions from which these employees had reported receiving degrees.

Some agencies don’t keep these records so tallying that information from these agencies was not possible.

For the convenience of its customers, and to meet government requirements, GAO discovered that some of the “schools” would modify their billing practices to comply with government requirements. For example, a school might charge a flat fee for a particular degree. Since the government will not pay for a degree, the school arranged with GAO’s undercover investigator to bill an agency for enough individual courses to cover the flat fee it charged for the degree.

GAO asked the Department of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Veterans Administration, Small Business Administration and Office of Personnel Management for information. 28 senior employees in these listed degrees from unaccredited schools, and 1 employee received tuition reimbursement of $1,787.44 toward a degree from a diploma mill.

The final result is that agencies are not able to provide reliable data because they do not have systems to verify academic degrees or to detect fees for degrees disguised as payment for individual training courses. Additionally, the agency data GAO found do not reflect the extent to which senior-level federal employees have diploma mill degrees. This is because the agencies do not sufficiently verify the degrees that employees claim to have or the schools that issued the degrees.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47