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Understanding Fake Degrees and Credential Fraud in Higher Ed

Fake degrees and credential fraud are increasingly ubiquitous in higher ed. And it’s a problem schools must address by having a review process in place and training staff and faculty to spot errors in transcripts and prevent them from going through.

There are many fake degrees and fraudulent credentials floating around the higher education space. Recognizing a fake degree or credential is just as important as stopping them. In this interview, Jamie Carmichael and Sarah Eaton discuss their research findings on fake degrees, the challenges that come along with these fraudulent credentials and how higher ed leaders can raise awareness within their institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why should higher ed leaders and faculty focus on fake degrees and credential fraud?

Sarah Eaton (SE): This industry is worth $21B USD per year. That’s the dollar figure amount that most people in higher ed are unaware of. So, starting with that and understanding how the industry works and the impact it has is key.

Imagine you need surgery and later find out your surgeon has a fake degree—it happens. Fake degrees are not a victimless crime and can have a direct negative impact on the public. Before the pandemic, we were talking about academic integrity and wondered why people aren’t talking about this. So, we decided to dive in and make this book.

Jamie Carmichael (JC): Sarah and I began researching this topic and did a survey that spanned Canada from coast to coast to get a pulse point on the problem. Respondents were from the registrar’s office, admissions and faculty who contribute to academic hiring committees. As a result of that survey, we found out that 60% of individuals didn’t feel fake degrees were a problem. So, there’s a lack of concern. An international survey for the Council of Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group had similar results.

But there are plenty of examples out there, often in the media, and the Orim & Glendinning (2023) chapter details many such cases. There’s bribery of admission officials, leaked exam papers, sexual harassment, impersonation, suspect marketing, education agents and the inhumane use of technology. So, it does exist, and it needs to be a concern.

Evo: Is there a clear definition of what a fake degree or credential fraud is?

SA: We didn’t have a clear definition, and there are different kinds of degree fraud. There are degrees from fake universities, ones that are just a URL. Some companies sell forgeries, where you select the university and degree you want, and they’ll create it for you. And it could be a real university that they create this degree from.

Evo: What are some challenges within the credentialing space when it comes to credibility?

SA: The internet and technological advances are the catalyst that allowed businesses to do this. Companies will produce fake diplomas, transcripts, letters of reference and other documents. But technology can also be a part of the solution, like blockchain, but it doesn’t exist everywhere. So, technology can be an enabler and a solution to this kind of fraud and corruption.

A second challenge is standardized, admissions and language tests. For example, the Operation Varsity Blues scandal in the United States examined impersonation in standardized admission testing. We also found that standardized language tests for international students allow people to find work. But within that can be various forms of fraud—from hiring an exam impersonator to bribing examination officials. So, there are flaws within these tests that are supposed to indicate the person’s ability and proficiency but don’t necessarily do that.

JC: The theme of equity and fairness is key. We saw this with U.S. college athletes in one. Hextrum (2023) found that those who come from moderate or affluent households would have access to participate and invest in sports. So, when they go to apply for college, they can market themselves around sports. But not everyone, especially those from specific socioeconomic backgrounds, will be comfortable marketing themselves in such a way. Then, of course, the result is recruiting and admitting from a population that is all the same.

Evo: How do fake degrees and credentials have on the registrar’s office?

JC: Fake degrees certainly affect recruitment. It’s about reputation and would leave a black cloud over an institution should a scandal result. We found 54.7% of respondents didn’t feel confident detecting fake degrees—even though 68% had training and 90% expressed workload issues. Respondents saw 1-20 cases of fake degrees, but this number might not be accurate if they don’t have confidence and are feeling overworked.

From a registration standpoint, institutions have made strides in terms of digitizing records. Things like paper transcripts are now becoming a hybrid process. So, we need to make a lot of changes in regard to using technology. Universities have many systems, but getting everything to work seamlessly together is definitely a challenge—Duklas (2023) outlines the journey within Canada in the book.

SE: With the survey, we went into this black-and-white thinking: people either buy a degree or they don’t. But sometimes people don’t complete their degree and may want to buy a degree to say they finished it. That was something new that we didn’t anticipate.

Evo: How do you collaborate with other departments to make sure they understand the risks when it comes to fraud?

SE: I was a part of a committee reviewing graduate student applications in my area a few years ago. They already passed through administrative checks. We were there to make a departmental decision in terms of a recommendation for admission. But there was one applicant’s transcript we noticed was wrong. It had letter grades rather than the percentage system that this particular university is known to have. It was something admissions didn’t pick up on.

So, from that situation, we were able to alert admissions about this type of scenario. Having a review committee is important because things like this do happen. Conversations and sharing anecdotes across campuses can be powerful to alert folks that there may be additional expertise around campuses. Universities can leverage that to their advantage.

Evo: What are some best practices for leaders and faculty to better understand and address this topic at their institution?

SE: Two key things would be transparency and training. It’s not only about addressing suspected cases of fraud but also having academic fraud practices and policies in place enacted and implemented. And these policies and procedures must be transparent to all members of the campus community. We need 100% of those working in admissions and the registrar’s office to have the proper training to detect these things.

As people cycle through their jobs and new people come in, it’s important to keep that training up to date. Having conversations about standardized testing is also critical to re-evaluating admission criteria—to be fail safe. Adding a language proficiency assessment once a student is admitted is also another idea to implement.

JC: I want to circle back on the idea of hiring here. We need to verify academic credentials when we’re hiring and modify misconduct policies to include fraud, include the possibility of this happening in risk assessments or business continuity plans. We have to follow good quality assurance practices for higher education courses and curriculum development. 

Evo: Are there any additional facts within your research or survey findings that surprised uou?

SE: We have to tip our hats to Mr. Allen Ezell, the retired FBI special agent who’s done so much work in this area and contributed a chapter in the book. Through the work he’s done, we learned about these various companies around the world that would sell people fake degrees, then sell additional services, which led into the model of organized crime. These companies would engage in blackmail and distortion of customers who bought previous degrees or services. We realized this isn’t a mom-and-pop shop, it’s a global industry.

JC: We looked in depth at 30 websites that sell fake degrees and followed their breadcrumbs. From this web scraping, we found all these different products that you could buy to change your identity. A library card, student card, all the way to government-issued ID. And in terms of blackmail, if you didn’t pay, then your name would be put up and exploited in that fashion. They use factual information from universities to dupe buyers and claim they can hack into databases to change information (i.e., change a grade or put your name in a graduation database).

When we looked at the IP addresses of these websites, which we realize is an imperfect data point, the geolocation was predominantly in the U.S. You want your customers to have the best experience, so typically these companies would house their data centers where their customers live or have the greatest demand. It was really interesting information that we discovered and shines a spotlight on the security issues surrounding these businesses.

Evo: What are some trends you expect to see when it comes to credential credibility?

SE: We feel like we peeled back an onion on this project. What we learned is that this is a wicked problem that can’t be solved by one group of people. We brought together academic researchers, higher ed professionals, law enforcement and students into this research. So, it won’t be simply solved by just academics. Everyone across higher ed must pay attention to contribute to the solution. Solutions won’t be easy, but the more commitment we have the better off we’ll be.

Institutions can also take a lot of precautions to prevent fraud from happening in the first place like conducting audits to ensure fraud is discovered and can be dealt with.

JC: There are so many tools out there. Right now, we’re so focused on ChatGPT, since it’s the current technology changing the landscape. When thinking about admissions processes, things like reference letters, essays and resumes can be completely generated by tools like these. So, we need checks and balances in place.

There were many other notable trends. In terms of security vulnerabilities, you have to think like a hacker. We also need to think about how disability documentation can be interpreted and used. This came to light, again, during the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. We need a global solution, while keeping in mind that it’s also a competition. We’re competing for enrollments because that is a factor in how things are funded. These are some factors we must keep top of mind. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Read more on this topic in Jamie and Sarah’s book here.

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