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Diploma mills issue worthless credentials

When I first asked Lisa Hammond about her doctorate degree a couple of weeks ago, what mainly interested me was what she said after acknowledging she had received it from an unaccredited school.

Having a doctorate "is important to me," said Hammond, 53, who is paid a $55-per-hour consulting fee as a county contract monitor. "I plan to get another one."

She made it sound as if this was a goal like running a marathon — ambitious, but nothing that had to disrupt her life. And I wondered, can studying for a doctorate really be a part-time gig? Can you place what novelist Henry James called "those three magic letters" — Ph.D. — behind your name without the traditional two or three arduous years of class work and at least that many more years writing an original, book-length dissertation?

Yeah, sure, higher education experts told me, especially if you don't care about learning. And judging from the Senate testimony of a Coast Guard officer named Claudia Gelzer, Hammond wouldn't have had to learn much to get her doctorate from Kennedy-Western University.

Gelzer enrolled at the online California school as part of a federal investigation into diploma mills. She was promptly awarded more than half the credits she needed for a master's degree in environmental engineering, based on her work experience, she told a Senate committee in 2004.

"They asked for no proof or documentation," she said. And, "as a note, I have no formal engineering training."

Gelzer quickly picked up more credits by passing open-book exams, the answers for which could often be found in the books' glossaries. George Gollin, a University of Illinois physics professor who has made a sideline of exposing diploma mills, said it appears Gelzer could have finished all of her master's degree requirements in one 40-hour work week — even without receiving credit for life experience.

"To my mind, that makes Kennedy-Western a diploma mill, end of story," he said.

My favorite quote about the proliferation of advanced degrees came from a Washington Post story: "These days, Ph.D.'s are like opinions and pie holes — pretty much everybody's got one." That was in 2002. Due mostly to the increased reach of the Internet, the situation is worse now, Gollin said.

He estimated in 2007 that diploma mills issued between 100,000 and 200,000 university degrees annually. About a third were at the doctoral level, a number rivaling the 48,000 legitimate doctorates issued in 2008, according to a study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Even that figure may be inflated by questionable degrees awarded by for-profit universities that "have their roots in dog grooming and cosmetology and, over the past decade, have tried to move up the food chain," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

In Hammond's case, the questions don't stop with the quality of the institution. In a resume she sent to the Times about three weeks ago, when Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai offered her a full-time $105,000-a-year job (she's since been bumped back down to consultant, but could still make that much money in a year), Hammond claimed a Florida teaching certificate in psychology and economics.

Her teaching qualification has since expired, Hammond said Friday, though she didn't say that on the resume.

Also, Times researcher Shirl Kennedy found the state doesn't issue certificates in those fields, and Hammond makes no mention of them in a 2009 application to serve on the Early Learning Coalition of Hernando and Pasco — just that in 1999 she received a "temporary educator's certificate."

Weeks after it was first requested, Hammond, who also serves as chairwoman of the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission, still hasn't produced a transcript from the Southern Africa Policy Institute in Zimbabwe — from which she claims a "post graduate diploma" on her most recent resume. Nor could she provide a phone number or e-mail address. Researcher Kennedy found no evidence the institute even existed.

Kennedy-Western did exist, though it changed its name to Warren National University in 2007. It closed in March 2009, which happens to be the month Hammond received her degree.

Much of Hammond's work experience checked out, as did her undergraduate degree. And she has generally been praised for her performance with the county.

So maybe it's not fair to label her a fraud. But it is fair to say that phony degrees are a way of dishonestly extracting money. That's usually the whole point, Nassirian said.

Doctorates were once mostly just for academics, he said, and the "perceived value has increased because there are now so many fields in which a Ph.D. is highly lucrative."

When the degree is fake, the employer is stuck with a worker who may be unqualified and is certainly untrustworthy. And in Hammond's case, fellow Hernando taxpayers, that employer is us.

Diploma mills issue worthless credentials 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 1:28pm]
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