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Fake Credentials and Diploma Mills

Recently, a group of student reporters at Pittsburg High School in Kansas uncovered something unexpected about their new principle, Amy Robertson. While gathering information for an article they intended to write to welcome Ms. Robertson to the school, the students found reason to question her credentials; and the article they eventually wrote resulted in Ms. Robertson’s resignation.

What the students found was that Corllins University, where Ms. Robertson claimed to have received both her Master’s and PhD, did not have a functional website and was not an accredited school recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the US Department of Education. Further research uncovered several articles that suspect the school of being a diploma mill. The students also found reason for suspicion when Ms. Robertson gave conflicting answers regarding her education history during an interview and was unable to provide transcripts to verify her Bachelors of Fine Arts Degree from Tulsa University; a degree Tulsa University says it has never offered.

Each year, universities in the United States award an average of 45,000 legitimate doctorates, and another estimated 50,000 fake PhDs are purchased from diploma mills and other unaccredited schools. This phenomenon isn’t new, every year people use fake credentials to obtain positions like educators, doctors, lawyers and others we count on to be properly trained.  Back in 2004, the senior assistant secretary of defense, head of human resources for 2 million people, was found to have a fake master’s degree, and it’s currently estimated that 100,000 federal employees have credentials from a diploma mill. Part of the problem is that people simply accept stated credentials. But checking into someone’s credentials isn’t hard, as the student reporters of Pittsburg High School demonstrated, you just have to do the work.

The easiest way to identify a diploma mill is to find out if they are accredited. Other red flags to look for include:

  1. Diploma mills offer degrees for a set fee while legitimate universities charge by the credit.
  2. Diploma mills offer degrees based on work and life experiences and often promise you can get your degree in just a few days or weeks.
  3. Diploma mills often don’t list admission criteria.
  4. Diploma mills tend to have names that are similar to well-known reputable schools.
  5. Diploma mill websites usually don’t provide details about the content of their graduate programs, list very little information about the faculty, and often have no contact information listed other than an email address.
  6. Diploma mills often have complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau.
  7. Diploma mills yield sketchy internet search results.

Confirming an individual’s education history is an important step towards making the most well-informed hiring decision for your company.  For additional information regarding university accreditation in the United States, visit


A federal judge in Connecticut has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that Yale University wrongly confirmed a fake doctorate degree that resulted in a South Korean University losing tens of millions of dollars and damaging its reputation.

In their 2008 lawsuit, Buddhist-affiliated Dongguk University in Seoul claims that it hired art history professor Shin Jeong-ah after Yale University wrongly confirmed she had earned her doctorate there.

Ms. Jeong-ah went on to have a scandalous affair with Byeon Yang-kyoon, an aide to South Korea’s then president President Roh Moo-hyun.

Ms. Shin was sentenced to 18 months in a South Korean jail in March 2008 for using fake Yale credentials to get her teaching position at Dongguk and for embezzling museum funds. It is alleged that she also faked two degrees from the University of Kansas to obtain a former job in 2005.

Yang-kyoon was accused of using his influence to get Shin hired by Dongguk and was forced to step down from his aide position because of the scandal.

Dongguk is suing Yale for more than $50 million, claiming it lost that amount in government grants, alumni donations and costs of building a law school the government later refused to approve because of the scandal.


Dibyendu Malakar needed a graduate business degree to advance his career, but he was working full time and could not afford $100,000 or more for a two-year M.B.A. program at Berkeley, Stanford or another accredited business school. So Malakar enrolled at Frederick Taylor University, an unaccredited school in Moraga.

Because Frederick Taylor is listed in California as a state-approved school, he said, “I thought, ‘It can’t be completely bogus.’” In fact, he got his M.B.A. via the Internet in just a year, for less than $5,000.

That may not have been quite the bargain it seemed to be, though. “I did not realize that it did not carry the same weight as Berkeley or Stanford,” said Malakar, who emigrated from India. “But it was not a complete waste.” Malakar said his M.B.A. helped him get a job as director of product management at a software company in Cupertino.

Shakila Marando, a 33-year-old doula from El Cerrito, is seeking a bachelor’s degree in management from Frederick Taylor. Although she has been a student for nearly a year, she has never spoken to a teacher, she said. “They e-mail you a package of reading materials to read with a multiple-choice exam that is open book,” said Marando, who is from Tanzania. “For me, it is very convenient and I can work full time and read a little bit on the side. It is pretty easy.”

For Malakar, Marando and hundreds of students like them, it matters little that Frederick Taylor has no library or dorms; or that some states, including California, Michigan and Oregon, refuse to hire its graduates for many civil service jobs; or that its degrees are worthless for most professional licenses or teaching certificates.

Education experts say California leads the nation in unaccredited schools. Frederick Taylor is one of nearly 1,000 unaccredited or questionably accredited colleges and vocational schools that have been operating in the state without regular inspections or evaluations of educational quality, which is required under a state law that has rarely been enforced. State approval is basically a license to operate. Accreditation comes from national or regional agencies that review curriculums and educational standards.

“There are a lot of schools that beg the question ‘What exactly is going on in California?’” said Eyal Ben Cohen, managing director of Accredibase Limited, a company based in London that monitors diploma mills. “California has very weak oversight procedures as far as allowing an institution to operate within its borders. An institution within California can obtain a license very easily.”

Based in a cramped office on the second floor of a nondescript office building in Moraga, Frederick Taylor is run by Mansour S. Saki and Zhilla Nayeri Saki. Saki’s own curriculum vitae lists a Ph.D. from the C.S.M. Institute of Graduate Studies, which forfeited its accreditation in 2004.

Zhilla Nayeri Saki lists a doctorate in business administration from the same institution. Both are listed among Frederick Taylor’s six-person faculty, along with the couple’s 32-year-old daughter, Maryam S. Boller.

Selling diplomas over the Internet is a thriving business. The Sakis live in Orinda in a three- bedroom home with an assessed value of $1.1 million, according to property records.

The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is responsible for overseeing schools like Frederick Taylor, which was named for a late-19th-century management consultant. But in interviews, state officials conceded that many unaccredited schools had operated with state approval for decades without regular inspections. Frederick Taylor initially received approval to award degrees in 1994, but state records do not show that it was ever inspected.

In October, state officials renewed the school’s application to operate, again without a visit.

“They received approval because the eight-page application that they filled out was in compliance with the law,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the postsecondary education bureau.

Frederick Taylor charges $5,212 for a bachelor’s degree or a master’s in business administration. The academic requirements are less stringent than those at accredited universities. Full-time M.B.A. students at the University of California’s Haas School of Business at Berkeley, for example, must complete 51 semester units of course work. Frederick Taylor requires 32 units.

In a brief interview recently, Saki defended his school’s quality but said he had no plans to apply for accreditation from an organization recognized by the United States Department of Education.

“Licensing organizations and the civil service department in Michigan are entitled to set their own selection policies,” Saki said in a subsequent e-mail. “For some reasons, they have decided to disallow graduates of state-approved schools to join their organizations.”

Two people who were listed as faculty members on Frederick Taylor’s Web site and its course catalog said they no longer worked there when they were contacted by phone.

One of them, Pamela Berkman, a production manager at John Wiley & Sons, was listed as a faculty member but said she had not taught at the school for at least five years. Robert Deer, who teaches marketing and business courses in Florida, said he was hired to teach at Frederick Taylor about a year ago but had not been contacted to teach a class.

“I would not have applied for the job if I had known they were unaccredited,” Deer said.

Deer’s and Berkman’s names disappeared from the faculty list soon after a reporter contacted them about the school.

Saki said his school had as many as 500 students, many from Europe, Asia or Africa. He declined to elaborate on how foreign students were recruited or how many American students were enrolled.

A branch of Frederick Taylor University, called Frederick Taylor International University, joined with recruiters based in India, China and other countries to enroll students, most of them from abroad. After officials in Hawaii found the school had failed to notify students that it was unaccredited, and falsely claimed it was licensed by the state, among other state violations, the school was closed in 2001 and ordered to pay a $35,000 fine.

California regulators say they concern themselves only with whether schools abide by California law, in keeping their promises to students.

“The only thing we can go by is what they have been doing in California,” Heimerich, the consumer affairs spokesman, said. “If they are compliant with California law, then what standing do we have to take any action against them?”

Given the state’s history of lax oversight, it now faces the enormous challenge of completing roughly 1,300 compliance inspections by its stated goal of fall 2013.

“The former staff had more of a consultant role,” said Joanne Wenzel, the deputy bureau chief of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. “Now we are trying to bring them into compliance to regulate them” and make sure they follow state laws. “There weren’t a lot of teeth in the old law. We have moved away from that in the new law. We’ve gone to a consumer protection stance.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

Source: The Bay Citizen (