It's easy to find people with fake degrees. But should I do anything?
November 28, 2020 8:10 PM   Subscribe

I was poking around wikipedia the other day and came across this list of 100's of fake schools/diploma mills. A few minutes of googling turned up actual people whose online profiles list fake degrees from these fake schools. So, what now?

By the way, it's even worse on LinkedIn, where searching for many of those fake schools give dozens of hits. I'm not sure what to do with this. On the one hand, if some musician or middle manager on LinkedIn claims a master's degree she doesn't have, it's no skin off my teeth. On the other hand, I went to a big state school and sat next to students twice my age who were sacrificing time with their families or taking off time from work to put themselves through school, and I had mad respect for them, and when someone else claims that credit without earning it, well, it just gets me.

And then, surprisingly, I found some people in health care (nursing, radiology, etc) at hospitals or at teaching programs who have these fake credentials, and that's pretty frightening, honestly. Is it my responsibility to send a note to HR asking them to look into this? What if they have a real nursing degree but a fake master's degree in, say, nursing administration?

I probably won't do anything about this, because most days I'm too lazy to even get off the couch. But should I?
posted by fuzzy.little.sock to Education (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1. “Unaccredited” and “fake” are not synonymous.

2. I am racking my brain to try to figure out why you think fucking with absolute strangers’ livelihoods based on a single scrap of information is a good and noble use of your time.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:21 PM on November 28, 2020 [140 favorites]

If an employer is happy to hire someone with a degree from an unaccredited school, that's up to them IMO. It's not hard to check and I'm pretty sure many employers would check, but others probably don't care. Not all non-accredited schools are scams, although certainly a lot are.

With nursing specifically, Googling around, non-accredited programs are sometimes accepted; see this link from Florida.

In some cases, there may be a bureaucratic requirement that somebody get a bachelor's or master's degree for an internal promotion which they are already qualified for. This is another reason why somebody might want to attend a low-academic-rigor program. I can't get too mad about this.

It's also worth noting that colleges lose accreditation for various financial or bureaucratic reasons, but somebody might have gotten their degree before accreditation was lost.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:32 PM on November 28, 2020 [14 favorites]

You are not the Degree Police.
posted by seasparrow at 8:42 PM on November 28, 2020 [44 favorites]

As above, a degree mill isn't necessarily a sign of a "fake" degree. I know nurses with real nursing degrees who got "fake" master's because they prioritized online classes.

What do you think you'd be alerting HR to that they wouldn't already know? Presumably they can ask for proof form their employees. What would your goal be? Are you trying to punish them, or show them to be lying, or what, exactly?
posted by RainyJay at 8:43 PM on November 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is 1000% none of your business.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 8:50 PM on November 28, 2020 [31 favorites]

It's also worth noting that colleges lose accreditation for various financial or bureaucratic reasons, but somebody might have gotten their degree before accreditation was lost.

I know someone who graduated from Lambuth University, which is on that list, and if Wikipedia is accurate, they wound down when it was clear they couldn’t maintain accreditation because they were broke, which I can’t imagine the OP would object to.
posted by hoyland at 9:13 PM on November 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it's frustrating. Sometimes I amuse myself by running a Google search to find people who claim to have an MBA from Princeton (which, of course, lacks a business school and has never awarded an MBA degree). But I refrain from reporting anyone, and I suggest you do the same.
posted by alex1965 at 9:32 PM on November 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

Not your circus, not your monkey.
posted by yasaman at 9:42 PM on November 28, 2020 [9 favorites]

It's up to the businesses to check if someone has a legitimate degree or not. It's pretty easy for them to do so. They can call the school and ask, they can use the National Student Clearinghouse, the business can demand that the student show sealed transcripts directly from the school and/or the diploma. It's technically the business's job to check on this stuff, assuming they care. Plenty of organizations care and check.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly have LOL'd at the occasional person I saw listing on LinkedIn when I knew they didn't go there or finish going there. But unless it's actively hurting someone and you know for a fact that it's harming people (rather than just checking these diploma mill sites? I mean...that's all you've checked?), it's not your circus/monkeys.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:56 PM on November 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Two managers from the City of Regina, my previous employer, were let go after after the CBC published an expose of 100 Canadians claiming fake degrees. The CBC is not the degree police, but they did an audit on managers leapfrogging other staff based off their fake credentials and ability to lie about their fake credentials.

If you actually have definitive evidence of taxpayers paying staff with fake degrees, it could be a good media story that you could submit to a media outlet. Public institutions should definitely be watching out for this corruption and they should be held accountable if they aren't actually verifying an applicant's education.
posted by DetriusXii at 9:58 PM on November 28, 2020 [12 favorites]

Other commenters have pointed out the problem with conflating unaccredited schools with fake schools, so I'll just add one potential route you could go with this if you're interested. The urge to take action is behind a lot of good things in the world.

Find the fakest of the fake schools, the ones that advertised in the back of magazines and just required a payment and nothing else for a degree. Then find people claiming these degrees who used them to get jobs in government or other regulated careers where credentials are required to practice/be paid a certain salary. Those are probably the worst offenders.

You could also consider taking the urge to do something about the general problem area of educational inequality and focus on helping people like those who's struggle you noticed in the first place. For example organizations offering free or reduced cost child care for people going to school, or scholarships for older students.
posted by hermanubis at 12:10 AM on November 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

If they’re major public figures i.e. mayors and senators, tell a journalist. If not, leave it.
posted by johngoren at 12:47 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Definitely don't do this for all the reasons already mentioned here, but if you need a reason that comes with actual consequences: doing it risks destroying your own professional reputation.

Maybe you make it a point to never apply to any of the companies you make reports to, maybe you never piss off any of the degree-holders enough that they make a public and litigious stink about it, but those HR folks are definitely going to vent about it to their friends who work in HR at other companies, in other industries, maybe in a "Can you believe this?!" tweet that goes viral as such things do these days. You get forever branded as someone with questionable professional judgement, who took action that impacted other people's livelihoods and reputations without taking a minute to understand what "unaccredited" actually means, considering the many legitimate and non-nefarious factors that might be at play, and considering the potential implications of your actions. If that happens, finding work is going to be harder than it already is for everyone.

If you're truly concerned about this enough that you are in fact willing to risk your own reputation, then at least consult legal counsel first.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:53 AM on November 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

Bear in mind that, for many jobs, the existence, provenance and grade of a degree are primarily used as filtering mechanisms by employers. Asking for a qualification helps reduce the number of applicants that need to be filtered through to a manageable level - and having one (or saying you do) can thus be the tool to get you an interview.

But a fabricated/exaggerated qualification wont get you the job, or help you to stay in it, or get you promoted. The degree to which degrees correlate with somebody's ability to excel in a role is not so high. And the relevance of academic qualifications fades which rapidly over time (older resume writers are often well advised not to even mention achievements made more than 10 or 15 years ago). So, don't assume that employers will be keen to hear of these kind of exposes of those who have done well in a position - of who have moved through a string of jobs.
posted by rongorongo at 4:31 AM on November 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

There is a pretty significant difference between “fake diploma” and “non-accredited diploma.” The first type is literally fraudulent, while the second covers a much broader range of educational experiences.

I have an acquaintance with a fake diploma. He purchased it for $600ish after submitting a list of “life experiences” that apparently qualified him for a 4-year degree. The “school” is completely online and, as far as I can tell, doesn’t host any actual classes. This guy is currently holding high-ranking position at his company and has no student loan debt. Is it annoying? Of course it is. Would I ever expose his lie? Definitely not. What is there to gain for anyone? If his company’s HR department can’t be bothered to Google the school he lists on his CV, why would they be interested in what a stranger has to say? And even if they did, I don’t want to be the kind of person who seeks ways to pull down others. Life is hard enough as it is; karma is real and I want to push positive energy into the world, not negative (even if it feels justified).

For me, though, this topic is a referendum on the United States’ desperate need for educational reform, rather than anecdotal incidents with individuals.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 4:54 AM on November 29, 2020 [13 favorites]

[A few deleted. Please do not make comments attacking OP with insults, name-calling, and/or threats. That is never ok. ]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 6:36 AM on November 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

Thanks for the many thoughtful responses.

So, maybe I should find another quarantine hobby instead of hate-reading other people's LinkedIn profiles. And no, I don't honestly think I'll be sending any poison-pen emails to HR departments about their employees with fake degrees; not only is there my laziness issue (aside from my active hate-scrolling) but also I don't want to be the person who goes around ruining other people's lives, even if, in some obvious cases, they deserve it.

A bit more googling on my part led me to discover that over the years a number of journalists have indeed investigated these schools, and it's led to charges and fines (and in some cases prison terms for the people running the diploma mills). I found some articles back in 2008 about a couple in Spokane, WA who ran 170 different universities out of their home; hundreds of state and federal employees had purchased their degrees to get illegitimate raises at work.

And yes, this bothers me. Degrees and credentials should mean something, and it cheapens the hard work and effort that others put in when someone can just buy their way into a promotion with a diploma-mill degree. It's kind of the same feeling I get when I read about Lori Loughlin and other rich parents bribing coaches to get their kids into college.

And yes, I'm still (at age 50+) paying off student loans. I've still got tens of thousands of dollars left to pay. And when I read about someone just buying a bachelor's degree for $600, yeah, that's frustrating.

This quote from a 2008 Washington Post article kind of sums it up for me.

"People who buy diplomas from diploma mills are not victims; they are co-conspirators," Nassirian said. "People who fall prey to shoddy trade schools, they are victims. They think they are going to a real school, and they get ripped off. But people who pick up the phone and call and order themselves a master's degree in nursing know they are not nurses."

But in the end, not my circus and not my monkeys. If their HR departments can't be bothered to actually verify their diplomas, then my anonymous email probably won't make any difference.
posted by fuzzy.little.sock at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2020 [15 favorites]

Let me give a bit of balance to these people calling you “degree police”. I don’t think it’s worth your time and energy to out people who you have no employment relationship with, BUT

if you have any kind of business relationship with any of these people, you would absolutely be in the right about calling them out.

I had the unfortunate experience of having to supervise someone who claimed fake professional credentials (claiming to be a lawyer when he wasn’t) not only to my company, but to our clients. HR never checked and I only found out after he defrauded the company. It was devastating to our business and damaged my reputation to be associated with someone like that.

The people who are saying that it’s not your business to think about this would probably change their tune real quick if a fake pilot was flying their plane or a fake doctor was treating their child.
posted by banishedimmortal at 7:10 AM on November 29, 2020 [17 favorites]

Hey, I think this pile-on is unfair, but not unexpected for metafilter. I think what I would do is to write to HR if any of the credentials were specific to someone operating safely in an environment where they could endanger lives (feel free to interpret that as broadly as you’d like).

For me, I wouldn’t look for a second at all the master’s degrees of various kinds - what I would be looking at is nursing certificates, medical schools, other things where a legit qualification would mean that you are (theoretically) prepared to do a vital and risky task. Teaching certificates for me, would be on this list as well. But a master’s degree that helped someone move on to a higher promotion? I’d categorize that as “not my business”.

Also, this is a very reasonable question to ask yourself, I’m sorry that other responders are being like this.
posted by arnicae at 7:41 AM on November 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

Hey, I made the original "Degree Police" comment in this thread, which people seem to have picked up on and amplified through their own opinions.

After a good night's sleep, I think this sort of pithy quip is best made only in a face-to-face talk with a person that you know well. Just seeing how many other people have taken up the term in this conversation shows how powerful it is, and I think now I shouldn't have used it on an stranger in an internet forum.

If I had it to do over again, I'd probably quote computer genius and permaculture activist Paul Wheaton, who titled a recent book with his most excellent philosophy, which is "Build a Better World in Your Backyard Instead of Being Angry at Bad Guys."

It's the same thought I was striving for, but without the dismissiveness and contempt of my first comment.
posted by seasparrow at 7:44 AM on November 29, 2020 [41 favorites]

It sounds like you're concerned about whether or not this practice is fair, and that you want something you can do to fix it. So I'm going to address that.

The whole university system in the US is unfair. It reflects an unfairness in the US as a whole. White people are more likely to go to university. Are more likely to stay in university. And are more likely to make money from their university degree once they have it.

It is unfair. Systemically. It is something that you can take an interest in and productively work on.
posted by aniola at 7:59 AM on November 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

This recent ask-me thread on working to end credentialism might interest you.
posted by aniola at 8:04 AM on November 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

"From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Unaccredited institutions of higher education are colleges, trade schools, seminaries, and universities which do not have formal educational accreditation. Educational institutions may not be legally required to obtain independent accreditation, depending on local laws."
posted by SageTrail at 9:38 AM on November 29, 2020

It's hard enough making a decent wage under capitalism, COVID is making things even worse, and you're wondering if you should mess with people's careers? The HR departments at these companies don't need your freelance help. Mind your own business.
posted by signsofrain at 10:14 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

“Unaccredited” and “fake” are not synonymous.

Not everywhere. But they are in the UK.
posted by biffa at 10:28 AM on November 29, 2020

And no, I don't honestly think I'll be sending any poison-pen emails to HR departments about their employees with fake degrees; not only is there my laziness issue (aside from my active hate-scrolling) but also I don't want to be the person who goes around ruining other people's lives, even if, in some obvious cases, they deserve it.

How do you know they deserve it? I'm going to generously take it that you are an accredited expert in that field.

In the end, the worst of this is that laziness should not be a low-bar for civilised behaviour for not trying to actively sabotage someone's life and livelihood. During a pandemic. This is all really disappointing.
posted by lemon_icing at 12:44 PM on November 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

As other people have said: unaccredited and fake are not the same thing. A former colleague of mine busted his butt and spent a lot of money to get an MBA from one of the universities on that list. They were accredited when he got his degree, but lost accreditation afterwards. The loss of accreditation was a news story about the time he was interviewing for a pretty impressive role. He didn't get the job and, considering how awesome he is, I expect that the news story had something to do with it. I imagine there's lots of people out there who are in a similar boat. If you want to do something, it's important to separate out "fake college that doesn't actually have academic work" from "de-accredited college that probably took advantage of students."
posted by rednikki at 1:04 PM on November 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

This is tough and I would say it depends on the impact it will have on the public. If it's doctors then yes it makes sense to do something. Having said that, it's very concerning if an institution that hires doctors does not have a thorough enough screening process to identify such things. Contacting the company letting them know that certain educational institutions or certificates might be considered bogus is probably the best option instead of outing people. It is potentially immoral to not do something if you are 100% sure this is definitely happening.

If someone just fakes an English degree though then what? I would say leave them alone. It's not your business. It doesn't matter if you worked hard to get there. You chose that path. They have chosen another.
I worked hard (ish) for an English degree but I don't give a flying duck if someone pretends to have one to get a job. Maybe they came from a poor background and couldn't afford to attend college. Maybe they had abusive shit going on at home and couldn't study so got bad grades and couldn't get in. Maybe they had no interest whatsoever in going to college but want to do a job they know they can do but that has a nonsensical "must have a degree" barrier. You don't know their circumstances. Now and then people need to duck and dive a little to get a job. In cases like this I think it's immoral to interfere.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 2:20 PM on November 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think this is a giant "depends on situation" sort of thing.

(a) Are you 100% sure this is a fake degree? A fake school? Or just not accredited/for pay/lost accreditation/some other situation? Be very sure before you take any further actions. Don't just go off what you read on the Internet.

(b) If you are 100% sure on the degree/school being fake--not just from reading on the Internet--is anyone being actively harmed in the situation, such as someone faking medical credentials?

Not to be all "If you go at the king, you best not miss," but if you really want to get into this as an activity, you'd better be sure, and you'd better be interfering in a situation that could cause actual harm.

Otherwise if you're just hate-scrolling on LinkedIn and you want some kind of cosmic revenge for how your life is going.... maybe find something better to do? I kind of get the impression reading this that you're kinda mad and stewing alone over your college degree and going "that's not faiiiiiiiiiiir" and "Lori Loughlin" and whatnot, and I'm not sure that "anonymously" emailing HR companies to say that you think so-and-so's degree is fake from what you read on the Internet is really going to end up making you feel better about all that stuff? Plus it might stir up some hornet's nests in your life that you might wish you hadn't stirred.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:36 PM on November 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

When someone is genuinely concerned about scammers, they usually begin by identifying and joining with the victims of these scams. Concepts of fairness and justice have no meaning unless these concepts are evoked on behalf of, in the defense of, and for the benefit of, victims.

Have you thought about this? Have you googled to find anyone who has been harmed by people with fake degrees? Have you attempted to join the efforts already being made by people who have been victimized, the organizations or movements or nonprofits or hashtags they have created to help themselves and people like themselves?

If you haven't, that's a pretty solid indicator that you're in an unhealthy and anti-social psychological space right now. Anger and outrage against people who supposedly "cheat the system" that does not spring from thoughtful concern for real and specific victims is just... toxic hate. It's destructive both to your own psyche and to society. Please reflect.
posted by MiraK at 6:58 AM on November 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

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