DOE audit finds degrees from diploma mills

September 30, 2004 (PRLEAP.COM) Education News
The Department of Energy is tightening controls over tuition reimbursements after finding some Hanford employees were reimbursed for receiving degrees from suspected Internet diploma mills.

An audit by the Office of the Inspector General for DOE of a sampling of Hanford employees and reimbursement records found five workers who had been reimbursed for courses at two unaccredited institutions.

They included an instance of an unidentified Hanford contractor that paid $2,400 for credits leading to bachelor and master of science degrees in environmental safety and health from Western States University for Professional Studies, according to audit results released Monday.

Western States is an unaccredited institution that offers degrees for a relatively low flat fee and awards degrees based on an evaluation of the applicants\' experience, according to the audit.

\"(DOE) is at risk of making educational reimbursements that provide minimal mission benefit and may result in individuals being placed in sensitive positions for which they are not qualified,\" the audit concluded.

The DOE audit follows a Government Accountability Office report in May that looked for high-level federal employees with degrees from diploma mills that required no academic work.

Among irregularities it found were three management-level DOE employees with degrees from unaccredited schools. They had emergency operations responsibilities at the National Nuclear Security Administration and security clearances.

The GAO report concluded that the problem likely was far greater across the federal government than the instances it had uncovered because of the difficulty of acquiring reliable information in the sample of employee information and schools.

Diploma mills often pick names similar to reputable institutions.

When employment records reported a degree from \"Hamilton,\" GAO could not tell if it was Hamilton College of Clinton, N.Y., which is a fully accredited school or Hamilton University of Evanston, Wyo., which is not accredited by any agency recognized by the U.S. Departments of Education, according to GAO.

In some cases, colleges and universities claimed accreditation, but not by agencies that investigators considered any more credible than the diploma mills.

GAO employees who called Internet universities that required no academic work were told that the institutions could modify billing practices to allow them to obtain payments for degrees from the federal government. Instead of charging their usual flat fee, they offered to divide the fee by the number of courses a student would be required to take at a traditional school to meet federal reimbursement requirements.

The study of Hanford contractors looked at tuition reimbursements for the fiscal years 2002 and 2003. It did not say which contractors made the questionable tuition reimbursements.

Hanford contractors have until Nov. 1 to notify DOE in writing that they have implemented policies to verify that educational institutions are nationally accredited or otherwise provide meaningful training before approving tuition reimbursements.

Compenys that offer degrees,