Substandard degrees everywhere

Verification is lax, particularly in public sector jobs.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 2, 2007

Florida's juvenile justice secretary may be the latest poster child for a higher education issue that never seems to go away: the widespread use of degrees from questionable institutions.

The St. Petersburg Times reported Saturday that Walt McNeil obtained a master's degree in criminal justice from St. John's University in Springfield, La., an obscure correspondence school founded by a hypnotherapist that claims to be widely known for its antiterrorism curriculum.

Questionable degrees have been a problem for decades. Congress has scrutinized them. The FBI has cracked down on them. The late, legendary Florida Rep. Claude Pepper once bought a bogus doctorate for $1,780 to dramatize how easy they are to get.

Yet experts say there are still hundreds of institutions cranking them out, and hundreds of thousands of them listed on resumes. Author John Bear, a leading authority on the issue, says he once searched resumes on Monster.com to see how many listed questionable colleges and universities - and stopped counting at 5,000.

"It hurts the legitimacy of legitimate degrees," said Richard Porter, a spokesman for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, better known as CHEA. "If you're somebody who's going for a job and you have a degree from an accredited institution, you put in the two years or four years or however long it took. Meanwhile, Candidate B goes online, pays X amount of dollars and says, 'Oh yeah, I've got a degree.'"

Candidate B just might get the job given little public awareness, a dearth of state and local regulations and a lack of diligence on the part of many employers.

"Many state governments still allow use of fake or substandard credentials by their own employees" and many local governments are "stuffed" with them, said Alan Contreras, who heads Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization and testified on the issue before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 2004.

McNeil was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in January after a solid record as Tallahassee's police chief.

He said he enrolled at St. John's because he wanted to attend a faith-based university. He got his degree in 2002.

In an initial interview, McNeil said he couldn't remember the names of any classes or instructors, or whether he wrote a master's thesis. He later produced a transcript that showed he took three classes and received other credits for past graduate work, professional experience and teaching undergraduates.

It does not appear McNeil used his degree for personal gain or did anything illegal. But academic experts question his motivation and judgement.

St. John's is closely tied to a Congregational Church of Practical Theology. It is not connected to the better known school in New York. It is not accredited by an agency recognized by CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education. In 2005, it moved to a house in Nashville, Tenn.

As part of its background check on McNeil, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement checked if St. John's was accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department. On an report sent to the governor's office, it said it was unable to verify that.

McNeil isn't the only one to find his degree under public scrutiny.

In 2004, the General Accounting Office reviewed the records of three questionable institutions and found 463 federal employees had obtained degrees from them. News stories about such degrees are frequent in newspapers across the country.

A few weeks ago, the Fort Myers News Press reported on a state House candidate who claims a master's degree in math from Canterbury University, which can be found on Oregon's list of "unaccredited degree suppliers." Last year, the Naples Daily News wrote about two Naples police officers who were fired because of questionable degrees from Almeda University.

Closer to home, the Times reported last year about bogus degrees at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. One deputy under investigation said as many as a dozen others had similar degrees, but an internal review found no others.

In Naples, the Police Department clamped down after the disclosure. It now requires a supervisor to verify the credibility of a degree by checking with U.S. Education Department, said Capt. James Slapp, who investigated the officers.

Since the department requires academic degrees for some promotions and pay raises, "we better make sure it's a legitimate degree," Slapp said.

In 1989, Florida legislators made the claiming of questionable degrees a first-degree misdemeanor. But while the law remains on the books, a federal judge in South Florida ruled it unconstitutional on free-speech grounds in 1995.

Some states, most notably Oregon, have responded with tighter laws. Not so in Florida.

"Yes, we're concerned when people walk around with fake paper," said Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. "But I don't know right off that that's something we can affect."

CHEA thinks states can do more. In a letter to all 50 governors earlier this year, the organization offered its help in crafting state laws, and cited a federal bill filed by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, as a model.

So far, 10 states have responded to the offer. Florida is not one of them.

Researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan and Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.Ron Matus can be reached at 727893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.



These Web sites provide information about accreditation, diploma mills and accreditation mills.

- Council for Higher Education Accreditation: www.chea.org. The site also contains a database of institutions and programs accredited by U.S. accrediting organizations that have been recognized either by it or the U.S. Department of Education or both.

- U.S. Department of Education: www.ed.gov/students/prep/college/diplomamills/index.html.