Even cops burned by fake college degrees


Published: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:53 a.m.

TAMPA, Fla. — When Fruitland Park police Chief J.M. Isom considered getting his education online, he had plenty of company. Many midcareer law-enforcement officials realize that advancement and better pay may come only one way: with a college degree.

That makes police officers such as Isom — and other public servants working in corrections and firefighting — part of a prime pool of potential students for so-called degree mills, online "schools" that offer authentic-looking degrees for little cost and not much schoolwork.

Many of these degrees, however, are worth only the paper they're printed on.

In the case of cops, they're being asked to practice what they so often preach to citizens: Buyer beware.

"These are among the relatively few professions today that you can enter and succeed in without a degree," said Alan Contreras, administrator with the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, which has become something of a national watchdog, warning unsuspecting students and employers of bogus degree programs.

"You can enter (these jobs) without a bachelor's degree. The problem is eventually you're boxed in and cannot advance," Contreras said. "That's the market the diploma mills have always aimed for."

Isom's failure to confirm the legitimacy of Youngsfield University has Fruitland Park's top law-enforcement officer caught in a public-relations mess. Both of his degrees came from an unaccredited program.

He's not alone.

From 2000 to 2006, at least three Florida officers lost certification, got suspended or resigned because of bogus degrees, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Kristen Chernosky said.

Though the number is low, it represents only those cases brought to FDLE's attention.

An additional 3,000 "false statement" cases involved law-enforcement officers during the past three years, FDLE records show. Phony degrees would fall into that category, but FDLE has no simple way to pull from those incidents all cases involving suspect degrees.

Contreras said there are probably many more police officers and public officials — in Florida and elsewhere — with credentials on their resumes from unaccredited institutions.

The lure of earning college degrees in much less than four years can be hard to resist for those faced with the demands of work and family, forced to study in their spare time and perhaps not knowing the rigors of true college coursework. The cheaper and less time-intense a college or advanced-degree program is, the more attractive it becomes to someone who stands to gain careerwise by holding that piece of paper, Contreras and others familiar with these operations said.

Many Florida law-enforcement officers take advantage of programs that offer stipends or tuition reimbursement for their degrees and coursework.

The city of Orlando provides stipends and tuition reimbursement for police and firefighters getting degrees. About 700 staffers at the Orlando Police Department take advantage of the stipend program, amounting to about $1,079 per employee per year, city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh said.

The city checks a special U.S. Department of Education database to verify the accreditation of schools issuing those degrees, she said.

Isom gained $80 a month in supplements with his degrees from Youngsfield, but he didn't take his online courses for the money. Instead, he said, they were meant to help make him eligible, possibly, for a higher position elsewhere in law enforcement.

Now FDLE is investigating whether Isom did anything criminal when he presented his degrees as authentic and began receiving the incentive pay.

Tom Butler, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, recommended being prudent and exercising due diligence when checking out degree programs. Students and employers checking out any school should find out whether it is accredited and who regulates the program. Students also should check to see whether the program they want to enroll in is recognized by their employers.

"We warn students: Be careful. Buyer beware," said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "Do your homework. Be an educated consumer."

DOE has an extensive database with a "positive list" of accredited schools. Another resource Glickman recommended is called College Navigator.

Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, where Contreras works, has a separate online list of "unaccredited degree suppliers" with remarks about many of those operations. The list includes Youngsfield University and simply calls it "fake."

Prospective students and employers can take advantage of a few clear signs to distinguish what is a real degree and what is not. Several online sites also may help.

For one thing, no legitimate college or graduate degree these days is going to cost you several hundred dollars or even a few thousand, experts say.

If the institution has no physical address and doesn't clearly say which state or country it is in or does not provide a phone number, those are usually good clues that it is a degree mill.

Legitimate institutions generally let the public know where they are and boast about credentials of their faculty members.

Finally, there is accreditation. Although some unaccredited schools are legitimate, accreditation is big clue to help you determine whether a school is for real.

"If it is accredited, it is automatically not a mill," Contreras said. "It is easy to identify institutions that are bogus."

Experts cite institutions such as Capella University, University of Phoenix, DeVry University, Kaplan University and American Public University System as accredited degree programs with substantial distance-learning or online offerings.

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