Back to School


I'm generally a fan of his stuff, but Clay Risen's New Republic article on diploma mills goes weirdly off the rails at the end:

To their credit, some degree mills, such as Breyer State, acknowledge that their accreditation is not officially recognized. But they, in turn, exploit the lack of enforced standards by noting, "There is no mandate by federal law for a School, College, or University to be accredited…. [E]ach accreditor has their own unique standards and, thus, there is no national consistency in institutional accreditation." This is, to put it nicely, extremely disingenuous, leading applicants to assume that accreditation from Breyer State's csccs is as good as that from a federally recognized body. And, until the feds get serious about accreditation, degree mills like Breyer State and American World will continue to scam students, employers, and the government itself.

He doesn't say it in so many words, but Risen certainly seems to be arguing that there ought to be "mandate by federal law for a School, College, or University to be accredited." One obvious downside to this is that there are plenty of people who go to something that calls itself a "school" with the primary goal of, you know, learning something rather than adding another bullet point to the resume. It seems unduly burdensome to slap up mandatory federal standards applicable to any institution that wants to call itself a school or college.

That said, the real problem with this idea is that it doesn't really speak to the problem. With regard to scamming employers and the government, the Department of Education already maintains a list of recognized accreditation agencies. If government agencies are hiring people with diploma mill degrees, how about we just get them to check the list and see whether those degrees are recognized as legit? Private employers could use the same list or their own, or rely on a combination of accreditation and more direct knowledge of the quality of smaller local institutions.

As for scamming students, the notion that this is a serious concern turns on Risen's uncritical acceptance of diploma mill poster child Laura Callahan's wildly implausible claim to have been gulled by the ersatz Hamilton University into thinking its degrees were legit, because, after all, it had "requirements." Let's look to a piece Paul Sperry wrote for Reason on this issue a year ago for a sense of those requirements:

To get her Ph.D., Callahan merely had to thumb through a workbook and take an open-book exam. The whole correspondence course—which includes instruction on business ethics—takes about five hours to complete. A 2,000-word paper (shorter than this article) counts as a dissertation.

At the risk of placing too much confidence in basic human intelligence, I find it pretty much inconceivable that a (to some extent genuinely) educated professional sincerely belived that a genuine Ph.D. could be had for writing a 2,000-word paper and completing a short workbook. If she were really uncertain, she could've checked that DoE list.

In short, we've got the resources we need in place now to prevent people from being scammed by diploma mills. We should try using them before we start clamoring for more federal rules.