Is a Fake College Degree Worth Anything?

Earlier this month I asked Is a College Degree Worth Anything? It is a theme I’ve touched on a few times over the past year. (See other posts in the Grads Chris Moncus category "College" at right.) In my view college is financially a great deal for some people, and a good deal on average, but at the marginal extreme probably not worth it.

Two recent posts on WalletPop (here and here) raised an interesting follow-up question. Is a fake college degree worth anything?

I am talking about degrees from what are called diploma or degree mills. Deliciously, WalletPop makes a distinction between the terms based on how blatant the fraud is. Diploma mills sell official looking papers for a modest fee. Degree mills make a show of reviewing your "life experience" before selling you official looking papers for a slightly less modest fee, running from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Who would buy such a thing? Based on news articles cited by WalletPop (e.g. this one) the primary domestic market appears to be government workers. That makes sense. A private employer might not be impressed by a degree from an unknown university. But in the public sector, where hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions are governed by ossified civil service rules, a generic and/or fake degree can mean real money.

Fake degrees are also, it turns out, another great American export industry. In 2008 a big diploma mill in Spokane was busted by the Feds. When their customer list was leaked it was found that about half were from overseas, many from Saudi Arabia. This inspired some trumped-up anxiety about terrorism. Obviously, any Arab with a fake PhD in Computer Science is a suicide bomber in the making.

More likely, Saudis buy bogus degrees for the same reasons Americans do, to dupe employers, particularly the government. Given the distance and language barrier involved it probably works better over there than here, and in that part of the world a government job is a much bigger deal.

All this makes sense to me, more or less. I can see why, for some people in some situations, a fake degree from a fake school on the resume is a smart move. But what I just don’t get is why anybody would pay money for one.

These degrees are a fragile house of cards. Even the slightest breeze of investigation will cause them to collapse. In a matter of seconds Google will expose Rochville University as a scam. So why pay them money before you claim your Masters in Nuclear Engineering? If the HR guy at the nuclear plant decides to look into it, you’re screwed even if you have an engraved certificate with an embossed gold seal.

And wouldn’t it make more sense to claim a degree from a real school? I know from personal experience that employers almost never verify these things. My resume says that I got a certificate in finance as part of my MBA. Turns out, if you call the university involved they will deny such a thing exists, as it was really just something a few renegade professors cooked up. In the 15+ years this has been on my resume its dubious status has been discovered exactly once, during the due diligence for a corporate takeover.

Come to think of it, perhaps my current extended unemployment could be explained by the fact that my resume inexplicably omits my PhD in Aeronautical Nanotechnology from Cal Tech.

Better yet, perhaps the degree mill business could use a new entrant. Sure, the couple who ran the one in Spokane are in prison now, but they were also selling counterfeit diplomas from real schools. (I can understand why that is illegal, although I can make a reasonable first amendment argument that it shouldn’t be.) In any case, I will merely invent my own school and award unaccredited degrees based on my own extremely lax criteria. Diplomas will be clearly marked "For novelty purposes only" in 4 point type. Some customers may use the degrees in fraudulent ways, but that’s their business.

Of key importance will be my university’s name. I’ve narrowed it down to a few possibilities: Colombia, Cornel, Dartmuth, Princetown, or maybe the University of Pennsylvainia. I was thinking of going west coast with Stamford University, but that’s taken. As is Samford University. (Both 100% real colleges, BTW.) Thankfully, my favored name for an engineering school, MIT (the Malden Institute of Tupperware) is still available.

[Photo: Chris Moncus]

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