The Economics of Fake Degrees

News and views from academia.
July 3 2014 8:08 AM

The Economics of Fake Degrees

My cat can get a Ph.D., and that’s a problem.

Cat Grad.
That’s Dr. Whiskers to you.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

It’s surprising how many house pets hold advanced degrees. Last year a dog received his MBA from the American University of London, a non-accredited distance-learning institution. It feels as if I should add “not to be confused with the American University in London,” but getting people to confuse them seems like a pretty basic feature of the whole AUOL marketing strategy.

The dog, identified as “Peter Smith” on his diploma, goes by Pete. He was granted his degree on the basis of “previous experiential learning,” along with payment of 4,500 pounds ($7,723). The funds were provided by a BBC news program, which also helped Pete fill out the paperwork. The American University of London required that Pete submit evidence of his qualifications as well as a photograph. The applicant submitted neither, as the BBC website explains, “since the qualifications did not exist and the applicant was a dog.”

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The program found hundreds of people listing AUOL degrees in their profiles on social networking sites, including “a senior nuclear industry executive who was in charge of selling a new generation of reactors in the UK.” (For more examples of suspiciously credentialed dogs and cats, see this list.)

Inside Higher Ed reports on diploma mills and fake degrees from time to time but can’t possibly cover every revelation that some professor or state official has a bogus degree, or that a “university” turns out to be run by a convicted felon from his prison cell. Even a blog dedicated to the topic, Diploma Mill News, links to just a fraction of the stories out there. Keeping up with every case is just too much; nobody has that much Schadenfreude in him.

By contrast, scholarly work on the topic of counterfeit credentials has appeared at a glacial pace. Allen Ezell and John Bear’s exposé Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, first published by Prometheus Books in 2005 and updated in 2012, points out that academic research on the phenomenon is conspicuously lacking, despite the scale of the problem. (Ezell headed up the FBI’s “Dipscam” investigation of diploma mills that ran from 1980 through 1991.)

The one notable exception to that blind spot is the history of medical quackery, which enjoyed its golden age in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of dubious practitioners throughout the U.S. got their degrees from correspondence course or fly-by-night medical schools. The fight to put both the quacks and the quack academies out of business reached its peak during the 1920s and ’30s, under the tireless leadership of Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

H.L. Mencken was not persuaded that getting rid of medical charlatans was such a good idea. “As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns,” he wrote in a newspaper column from 1924, “with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence. ... It eases and soothes me to see [the quacks] so prosperous, for they counteract the evil work of the so-called science of public hygiene, which now seeks to make imbeciles immortal.” (On the other hand, he did point out quacks worth pursuing to Fishbein.)

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