Diploma Mills Redefined: There are Far More of Them Than You Might Think

What is a diploma mill? Scan the web and you will find a range of answers. Some limit their idea of a diploma mill to illegitimate schools. They are scams that claim to be legitimate organizations, but only to take your money, sending you a diplomas for little to no work. Others think of diploma mills as actual colleges or universities that offer degrees, but these schools might not be accredited, and/or they offer degrees with a watered down academic experience. Still others use the phrase “diploma mill” to describe a college or university that is more interested in getting a student’s money than in the quality of the education. They are essentially selling diplomas. All of these represent working definitions for a diploma mill today, but I’d like to offer an expanded definition.

A diploma mill is any college, university, or organization that has the earning and issuing of diplomas as its core value and/or function as described by employees at the organization and/or the students.

Notice that many definitions of a diploma mill speak to the idea of organizations that issue diplomas for a price, but without the academic rigor or the evidence of actual student learning. That is indeed a diploma mill, but I’d like to suggest that this is only one type. There are also diploma mills that make things quite hard for students. They add lots of rules and academic hoops. They might have challenging tests. They require papers and projects. They might even offer good and valuable learning experiences. Yet, in the end, they or the students that they serve see them as mainly just steps toward getting that piece of paper at the end. That is a diploma mill. A mill is a place where machines grind out grain into flour. A diploma mill is a school that grinds out people into graduates with pieces of paper. The focus is upon how many pieces of paper they issue. The process is not as important as the end goal of getting the piece of paper.

You know that you are in a diploma mill if you were to get half way through a degree program, leave, and believe that it was therefore a complete waste of your time and money. The focus was on getting a diploma, and you didn’t get it, so you basically look at it like going to the store, paying for a product, but leaving the store without the product.

For non- diploma mills, the product, if we want to stay with that metaphor, is not the diploma. It is the mentoring, the learning, and the journey of personal transformation. Do you consider that idealistic? If so, then I’d like to suggest that such a reaction is further evidence about how rampant diploma mills are in higher education today.

Scan online advertisements and you will read grand promises of earning your diploma in increasingly shorter periods of time. There is a drive to condense and crunch things into smaller chunks of time, removing time for reflection and deeper learning. There are ads that place a prominent image of a student crossing the stage with the diploma in hand, since that is the goal in a diploma mill.

The paper is not without value. Companies value it when posting jobs. Certain pieces of paper from colleges are required to even apply to some jobs. The paper adds some level of prestige. It serves as a signal of achievement and progress in a person’s life. Family members and recipients often beam with pride.

None of this is inherently bad, but I’d like to suggest that it is separate from real, deep, important, substantive learning and education. If you go back far enough in the history of Harvard, you will find a time when students who graduated didn’t even get diplomas. If they wanted one, they had to hire someone to create it and they go the President’s office, paying the president to sign it. That was in addition to and/or separate from the real focus of Harvard, which was to provide a rich and valuable education.

In the flurry of higher education innovation today, and the praise of massive enrollments, we are wise to not lose sight of the dangers associated with becoming a diploma mill. They risk devaluing the essence of great higher education. In addition to that, the more that colleges see themselves as mainly selling verification and diplomas, the more that they set themselves up for a future and impending disruption. Things might go well for them, even exceptionally well, in the short to mid-term, but that will eventually change. The learning communities that truly contribute to something important in life and the world are the ones that likely issue diplomas at the end, but that is not the main thing for them. They are true communities of learning, inquiry, and transformation.

In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

Eradicate Digital Advertising in Higher Education to Better Serve Students

I”m concerned about higher education advertising. In fact, it might even be hurting students and prospective students. Perhaps you don’t know this, but marketing budgets have been on the rise in higher education institutions around the United States for quite some time. When you look at Universities offering online programs, we see this even more. To “complete” for adult learners, evening students, and online students, the cost is quite surprising to many. It is not unheard of for an institution to spend thousands to recruit one new online MBA student. MBA is an especially competitive and pricey search term for higher education advertisers who are bidding against one another to have their ad show up first.

In business, we sometimes talk about the cost per acquisition or cost per conversion. This is how much money a business needs to spend on marketing and sales to convert someone to become a paying customer. As long as the business gets an adequate return on that marketing and sales investment, it is often considered a wise financial investment. This is now the mindset of a growing number of people in higher education.

When online learning started to take off, we saw a large initial growth in for-profit companies that brought with them this business mindset. They were more than ready to invest greater amounts of money to draw the attention of prospective students away from other schools and to them. Being new to the market and not having a trusted brand, they had to buy the attention, and companies like Google and countless other digital advertising services were happy to assist in the effort…at a cost, of course. Now it is not just the for-profit companies. I’m simplifying it, but this is part of what sparked and all out “spending war” in higher education today. We are talking about a multi-billion dollar digital advertising industry, and higher education is contributing more than ever to that pool of money. This 2009 article reported the University of Phoenix spending over 100 million on advertising annual. While there are not many with that large of a budget, we’re witnessing some massive dollars invested in recruiting students. Schools with very large online programs might not be spending as much as the for-profits, but many of them are still investing significant amounts to online advertising and related recruitment efforts. It is a competition among schools that is driving the costs of recruiting students upward each year.

When many traditional Universities sought to grow their online programs, some did it in-house, but most needed to up their marketing investment significantly to do that. That is why Universities were willing to hire outside companies to do the recruiting for them. The companies bring the upfront capital and do the big advertising investment, but then they get to keep a big part of the tuition. I’ve spoken directly to many of these external groups, and they can get anywhere from 15% to over 60% of the tuition depending upon the services that they provide. As I’ve already stated, all of this is generating a true spending war for the attention of prospective students.

It does nothing to help students.

  • It doesn’t help them find the best fit school.
  • It doesn’t provide them better information to consider their options.
  • It doesn’t promote a more thoughtful deliberation process.
  • It potentially draws money away from Universities that could be used to improve the student experience, the academic programming, or even to reduce tuition or provide academic scholarships.

At the same time, this “war” is driving greater University expenditures on digital ads, even as there is still a debate about whether they really work. Having a well-known and recognized University brands is almost certainly a stronger asset. Yet, when a locally known or regionally known school wants to compete for attention, they start spending precious University money to do so, money that quite often comes from student tuition.

For these and other reasons, we need to disrupt this current higher education advertising system, and I believe that educational entrepreneurs and other social entrepreneurs can help. If we can create a robust ecosystem of student/college matchmaking technologies, then I believe that we can reduce the need for and impact of digital advertising. We can create “go to” sources to help students find the best schools for their needs, and they can do it without clicking on a single ad that chases them around the web. They can get good, detailed, substantive information and guidance from neutral sources.

In this end, this can be good for students and for colleges. It might hurt Google, Facebook, Instagram, or others who are looking for a chunk of the higher education marketing purse, but something tells me that they will be just fine.

So, here is my dream in this regard. I would love to see a convening of educational entrepreneurs, foundations, investors, policymakers, students, and University leaders, join in this common cause, a cause to eradicate obscene higher education advertising spends while creating better ways to connect students and higher education institutions. A coalition of organizations can make a difference here. Matchmaking companies like Admitted.ly have the right idea. So do groups like QuestBridge that help make connections in a different way, but these are each too small and too niche to disrupt the entire system. If we can build a strong and diverse enough ecosystem of such providers that addresses diverse needs, I believe that we can do some real good.

The Rise (and Reign?) of Outsider Higher Education

You might know outsider art, but what about outsider higher education? This is not new, but it is growing quickly in the fertile soil of the connected age.We are now decades into a growing and increasingly accepted form of higher education that functions largely separate from established academia. I call it outsider higher education. Those who create and lead it do not necessarily consider what they are doing to be higher education (although some do). At the same time, the many affordances of life in a connected age are extending the influence and expanding the impact of these forms of higher education.

Outsider art, as people explain it to me, is a term used to represent art created by those who are outside of the broader art community. While some use the term in reference to any self-taught artist, others argue that such a broad use is simply self-taught art, and that outsider art is something distinct. It is art created separate from the standard influences in art. One example might be a person in a mental health facility with no formal training in art who begins to express ideas and experiment through painting, drawing, or sculpting. Some outsider artists see their work as art and even seek to make a living on the basis of this work. Others are so separate from the art community and the cultural discourse about art that they do not even identify what they are doing as art.

While the first references to outsider art emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, something began to emerge over time. Outsider art started to be talked about within it the art community. Events like New York’s Outsider Art Fair started in the early 1990s and continues today. Academic journals began that focus upon the study of outsider art (See Elsewhere: The International Journal of Self-Taught and Outsider Art and RawVision). Outsider art started appearing in studios, even with dedicated exhibits. A market for purchasing and collecting outsider art also developed. As such, outsider art became part of the larger art community.

While far from a perfect comparison, something similar is happening in higher education, hence my calling it outsider higher education. I am referring to a variety of expressions. Consider the following four.

altMBA

Seth Godin is a marketing expert, entrepreneur, and author. He is also the founder the the altMBA, a learning experience that does not confer a degree, but offers knowledge and skill development that one might often seek from a formal MBA.

RheingoldU

Howard Rheingold is an author, writer, and thought-leader about the implications of the modern connected world. While he has lectured at Stanford and UC Berkeley, he is also the founder and sold teacher at RheingoldU, a set of online courses that he leads/facilitates. In fact, I took his Literacy of Cooperation course several years ago.

Draper University

Draper University, founded by the Silicon Valley Tim Draper, does not offer formal degrees. What it offers is a real-world, substantive higher education learning experience that equips people to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Singularity University

Singularity University’s “mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It does not offer formal degrees or credentials either, but like Draper, it draws from world class talent to create a robust learning community.

None of these are recognized higher education institution by the US Department of Education. None of them are regionally accredited. None of them have many trappings of the traditional University experience. Yet, all of them offer higher education learning experiences. They are not bound by many regulations.

At the same time, many go to one of these after experiences after a more traditional college degree. Most people see these as supplements and not replacements for what you might get from an traditional University. Others see them as viable alternatives to gaining knowledge and skill that they might have otherwise sought through a University course or degree.

I expect that, just as outsider art eventually became a part of the larger art community, the same think is already happening with outsider higher education, and this will expand. Look at the list of “faculty” at Draper University and you will see an impressive list, one that includes entrepreneurs and scholars from places like Stanford University. Also consider that Draper has partnerships with both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. This is one example of where the outsiders and insiders are mixing, just as the founders of these others have plenty of connections to the insider world of higher education.

These are only four examples. There are countless others. The business of creating learning communities, mentoring and coaching, seminars and workshops, and the like is not new, but it is growing, with new ones appearing all the time. In fact, if you look back on my blog, as others talked about how they expect to seek many higher education institutions close, I disagreed, contending that we will indeed see a significant growth in the number of higher education providers. What people might not have understood is that I extended my definition of higher education far beyond accredited and degree-granting institutions. While I did not call it that at the time, my response represented an emerging way of looking at what is happening, what I am now giving the game of outsider higher education.