EZ Degrees

By Jessica Lyons

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always equated a university degree with four, maybe five years of grueling course work, waking up at six AM on a Saturday morning to study, and, of course, finals.

Boy, was I wrong.

At least according to a suspect email floating around in cyberspace.

"Obtain a prosperous future, money earning power, and the admiration of all," it says. "Diplomas from prestigious non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience . . . bachelors, masters, MBA, and doctorate diplomas available in the field of your choice. No one is turned down . . . CALL NOW . . . "

Now read the next sentence carefully, because with next semester rapidly approaching, this is the kicker:

"No required tests, classes, books, or interviews."

It's a slider's dream come true.

It's academia's answer to the seedless watermelon—the fruity goodness without the pesky inconvenience of seed spitting after every bite.

I call the toll-free number.

Seven days later, Harrington University's Eric Star calls me at home. Harrington is a "correspondence school," he says, based in London. It's a diploma mill.

"The general idea of a diploma mill is for people who are skilled, but didn't go to a university, or did go to a university but now can't use their degrees," Eric says.

It's a non-accredited school, so the degree is not for license, or for transfer of credits. But for everything else—including job applications, he assures me—this degree is legit.

"If you are a qualified professional in your field, you can get a degree in ten business days," he says. "We'll take your word about your qualifications. It remains between us how you received your degree."

"So what type of degree are you interested in?" Eric asks.

I say a Bachelor of Science in computer science. Immediately I feel like an underachiever. I could have had a Ph.D.

"Tell me about your background in computers," Eric says.

I tell him I graduated from high school, went to a junior college for a year, but didn't graduate.

He asks me about my college classes, and I tell him I took general education. No physics, no calculus, no information science. Hell, I don't even throw him a Typing 101 class. Apparently, that doesn't matter at Harrington.

"It sounds like you have the life experience necessary for a degree in computer science," Star says.

For only $1,460, a Harrington U. diploma will be mine.

The diploma itself looks like UCLA's, he says, and will boast a GPA of my choice. "You can graduate with highest honors, if you wish, or a more modest GPA . . . whatever you feel will be more believable, " says Star. Custom-made transcripts, professor letters of recommendation, and a wallet-size, laminated diploma are all included. And if I act within twenty-four hours, I will qualify for a "discount scholarship," lowering the price by five hundred bucks. If I can throw in a few other diploma hopefuls, everyone gets a certificate for less than six hundred dollars a person.

I've never heard of Harrington—what do I tell prospective employers about my alma mater?

"Tell them it's a correspondence school, like the hundreds of other correspondence schools scattered throughout the US and the UK. Our strength is in our anonymity."

Thus far, anyway.

Legal? Quasi—at best. Shady? You betcha.

And then, there's always the chance that an employer will discover your degree is a phony and that you've never touched a keyboard in your life.

"You think the person you are hiring is very qualified, overqualified even, and the danger is they've never taken any of those classes, nor will they be able to do the work," says Caresse Sakagawa, a marketing associate in charge of hiring at a San Francisco Bay-area manufacturing company.

The honesty factor plays a role here, too.

"This is lying," Sakagawa continues. "If I hired someone, and I found out their diploma and their transcripts were fake, they would be terminated immediately. No matter if they were my best employee, they would be fired on the spot."

Provided your prestigious diploma isn't lost in the mail, that is.

You get the picture, dear readers. There may be a few loopholes in the old 'no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch' adage, but a Ph.D. in ten days for a grand? It may save Mom and Dad plenty-o-bucks compared to four years at a private university, but get ready to do some explaining when the credit card bill arrives in the mail.

Such degree-mill scams are almost as old as the walls of academia themselves. They've been around for centuries. So long as there are sliders and scam artists, diploma scams will continue to thrive—and blur the lines of legitimate distance learning. Non-accredited religious schools in several states only increase the gray area.

It's hard to legally disseminate between legitimate institutions and scam operations, but that doesn't mean vigilant defenders of truth will stop trying.

Indeed, the popularity of phony schools dropped in the 1980's, as a result of the aptly-named "DipScam" task force of the FBI.

Operation DipScam investigated non-accredited schools in the US and abroad, sometimes with help from foreign agencies like Scotland Yard. They sent the founders of Johann Keppler School of Medicine and the United American Medical College to prison, shutting down the schools in the process. They also sucessfully shuttered other fake schools, including Southern California University, the University of England at Oxford, and Lafayette University.

But when DipScam closed it's doors in the early nineties—and with the advent of overnight delivery services, cheap laser printers, color copiers and scanners (not to mention the Internet)—phony diploma mills are once again making a comeback.

Forget toll-free numbers—now phony diploma advertising is only a spam-message away. So are "lost diploma replacement services," companies that will replace one's lost law degree from Harvard—for a small fee.

In fact, Degree.net (www.degree.net), an Internet resource for distance learning, warns about spam emails from the University of San Mortiz, University of Palmers Green, and, you guessed it, Harrington University. According to Degree.net, Diploma hunters wire the cash via Western Union and never hear from the "universities" again.

I call my friend Eric back at the number he gave me. I'm greeted by a pre-recorded, Madonna-esque British accent.

"Thank you for calling the university degree program," she says, "Even though our offices are overseas, calls will be returned the following day."

"Eric, I read something online about diploma scams connected with Harrington," I say.

No following-day response from Eric.

Over the course of the week, I leave several messages for Eric.

He does not return my calls.

I call the international operator to find a phone listing for the London-based school.

"I'm sorry, there is no listing for Harrington University," she says.

Unfortunately, sometimes it pays to do your homework.