Thomas Frank

A Matter of Degrees

By Thomas Frank

Two hundred thousand protesters took to the streets of Montreal a few months ago, clashing with police and triggering the provincial legislature’s passage of Bill 78, which placed strict limitations on Canada’s traditional freedom of assembly. What m otivated this demonstration, among the biggest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history? Financial malfeasance? Another war in Iraq? No and no. What brought the vast throng to the barricades was a proposed increase in Quebec’s college-tuition rate, from its current annual average of about $2,100 to $3,700.

Americans can only observe this spectacle with bewilderment. For decades, we have sat by while the average price of college has grown to almost ten times what it is in Quebec. At some U.S. universities, students pay twenty times as much as does the average Quebecer.

Then again, Americans know something about higher education that Canadians don’t: the purpose of college isn’t education per se. According to a report issued last year by the National Survey of Student Engagement, American undergrads spend less time at their studies nowadays than ever. They are taught by grad students or grotesquely underpaid adjuncts. Many major in ersatz vocational subjects, and at the most reputable schools they get great grades no matter how they perform.

But we aren’t concerned about any of that. Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an ever-emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky. Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred-thousand- dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.

The question that naturally follows is: Given the rigged, rotten nature of the higher-ed game, why would self-interested actors continue to play by the rules? The answer, to a surprising extent, is that they don’t.

It is a simple thing to pop a “von” into your name and pass as faded Austrian aristocracy. It doesn’t cost much to get one of those Bluetooth devices and walk around with it clipped to your ear all day like important people do. It is also easy to fake a college degree—indeed, there is an entire industry out there ready to help you do it.

We know how easy it is because people are caught doing it all the time, usually after a long career in which the forged Credential attracted no notice. Earlier this year, the CEO of Yahoo! quit when it was discovered that his degree in computer science was bogus. In 2006, the CEO of RadioShack stepped down amid a similar scandal—he had exaggerated his accomplishments at a California Bible college. And in 2002, the CEO of Bausch + Lomb admitted that the MBA attributed to him in a corporate press release was nonexistent. (The company’s share price plummeted on the dreadful news.)

Then there are examples from government, like the high-ranking former official in the Department of Homeland Security who loved to make her underlings address her as “Doctor,” in recognition of the advanced degree she had acquired from a prominent diploma mill. Her exposure led to a 2004 study by the General Accounting Office that scoured federal agencies for the alumni of just three diploma mills—three out of the hundreds of unaccredited Web-based enterprises that will issue you a degree in recognition of what they call “life experience.” The GAO caught 463 offenders, more than half of them in the Defense Department.

One might assume that academia is practiced at sniffing out counterfeit degrees. But if anything, prestigious universities seem even more prone to dupery than other institutions. In April, the vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education was forced out after it was revealed that he had never earned the Ph.D. listed on his résumé. Last year, two top officials at Bishop State Community College in Alabama also turned out to have dubious doctorates. In 2010, a senior vice president at Texas A&M lost his job for faking both a master’s and a doctorate. (He also garnished his CV with a fiction about having been a Navy SEAL.) And in what may be the most satisfying irony to come our way in many years, the Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology— the very person responsible for assessing academic credentials and, in fact, the author of a book of advice for college-bound students—confessed in 2007 that each of her advanced degrees was strictly imaginary.

“The world is awash with fake degrees,” says Les Rosen of Employment Screening Resources, a leading background-check outfit. In several of the examples cited above, the fakers actually studied at the institutions named on their résumés—they just failed to graduate. Others conjured their accomplishments out of thin air. Still others simply purchased their Credentials from unaccredited institutions. All three approaches are undoubtedly on the rise. A consultancy in Wisconsin has for many years maintained a tally of educational whoppers told by the various job applicants it is asked to investigate; the resulting “Liars Index” (a term the consultancy has trademarked) reached its highest level ever in the second half of 2011.

Just how widespread is the problem? Rosen estimates that some 40 percent of job applicants misrepresent in some way their educational attainments. And he reminds me that this figure includes only those people “who are so brazen about it that they’ve signed a release and authorization for a background check.” Among those who aren’t checked— who work for companies that don’t hire a professional background screener, or who refuse to sign a release— the fudging is sure to be even more common.

In view of the potential rewards to be gained, the prospective faker is well advised to avoid outright lies. The more rational choice may be a diploma mill. A British firm that tracks such rackets reports that the number of mills rose 48 percent in 2011 alone, and other sources suggest that they may generate revenues of as much as a billion dollars per year.

The entrepreneurial view of higher ed is a commonplace among these spectral institutions. “Every additional degree earned assures the recipient a lifetime return on their investment,” the website of something called Amhurst University reminds the aspiring applicant, who will be offered an extraordinary range of vocational degrees, from “Acquisition Management” to “Quality Assurance.” The graduates of such schools, who congregate on networking sites like LinkedIn, sometimes comment on the soft stupidity of traditional-college grads and on the utility of their own degrees as they climb the ladder of success. Some graduates, of course, wax bitter about the humiliation they felt when they were told their degrees were worthless. But these remorseful buyers should take heart: the fake degree biz has set up numerous fake accreditation agencies to attest to its genuineness.

Meanwhile, a parallel industry has sprung up to police the boundaries of educational legitimacy, and it, too, was growing explosively before the recession began. Over the past decade or so, it has developed ever more efficient ways of checking an applicant’s collegiate record electronically, through what is called the National Student Clearinghouse. And as we might expect, the industry has demonstrated its intellectual seriousness by starting a trade group, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, to prevent just anyone from claiming to be a background checker. The NAPBS has lobbyists, conferences, best practices, and even seminars on topics like the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

It takes only a few hours researching diploma mills to make you wonder about the swirling tides of fraud that advance and retreat beneath society’s placid, meritocratic surface. And eventually you start wondering about that surface, too, where everything seems to be in its place and everyone has the salary he or she deserves.

The diploma mills hold up a mirror to the self-satisfied world of white-collar achievement, and what you see there isn’t pretty. Think about it this way: Who purchases bogus degrees? Judging by how the industry advertises itself, the customers are desperate people whose careers are going nowhere. They know they need a diploma to succeed, but they can hardly afford to borrow fifty grand and waste four years of their lives at Frisbee State; they’ve got jobs, damn it, and families, and car payments to make. Someone offers them a college degree in recognition of their actual experience—and not only does it sound attractive, it sounds fair. Who is to say that they are less deserving of life’s good things than someone whose parents paid for him to goof off at a glorified country club two decades ago? And who, really, is to say that they know less than the graduate turned out last month by some adjunct-run, beer-soaked, grade-inflated, but fully accredited debt factory in New England?

The United States is not the only nation to police the Credential with such zeal. Two years ago, Pakistan’s government attempted to revive a defunct 2002 law that required members of Parliament to certify that they were college graduates— not a requirement for members of the United States Congress, by the way, even though we turn out three times as many college graduates per year. According to news reports, even the bachelor’s degree of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari was called into question.

Still, Americans do these sorts of things with a special élan. Perhaps the single most spectacular case of résumé fraud to make headlines recently was that of Adam Wheeler, a young man who first cheated his way into Harvard as a transfer student, then cheated his way straight to the top of its internal meritocracy, winning honor after honor with fake transcripts, fake grades, and plagiarized essays.

Like the story of the diploma mills, Wheeler’s tale has a peculiar, funhouse-mirror relationship to the conventional annals of American achievement. What he produced was a kind of parody of East Coast striving. In his application to Harvard, he claimed to have taken sixteen Advanced Placement tests; to have gone to Andover rather than the middling public high school he actually attended; to have briefly attended MIT; to be public-minded and community-conscious in every imaginable way.

And that was only the start. Having crashed the gates of the temple in Cambridge, Wheeler later sent out résumés asserting that he had coauthored books with his professors, that he spoke “Classical Armenian,” and that he had written a scholarly study on “maps of ideology”— apparently as hot a subject today as it was when I was in graduate school two decades ago. Such preposterous claims were closer to satire than to fraud. Yet Wheeler was able to fool one of the world’s most exalted citadels of higher learning by feeding it back mangled bits of its own jargon. Of course Harvard didn’t catch on— it just kept showering the con boy with awards and scholarships.

We know as much as we do about Wheeler thanks to Julie Zauzmer and Xi Yu, who covered the story for the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. Zauzmer’s fascinating book-length treatment of the same subject, Conning Harvard, will be published this fall. Perhaps not surprisingly for something penned by a Harvard undergrad, her account is suffused with reverence for the legitimate meritocracy. Bowdoin College, which the villain Wheeler attended before Harvard, “routinely picks up awards for the best college food in the country.” MIT, which Wheeler claimed to attend, “routinely appears among Ivy League schools at the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges.” And the Harvard admissions office, the ultimate custodian of merit, gets the highest praise of all. This “finely tuned, carefully guarded machine” is “intensive, rigorous, and deeply admirable in its thoroughness and its thirst for excellence of all stripes.” It is, in other words, a thing to be celebrated and defended, not tricked and trashed in the Wheeler manner.

After Wheeler was exposed, Harvard threw the book at him. The brand had to be protected— just think of the people who had paid all that money for a Harvard degree. And so Wheeler was prosecuted for identity fraud and larceny, ordered to repay the $45,806 in scholarships and financial aid he had won, and sentenced to two and a half years in jail. His sentence was initially suspended—but late last year, Wheeler was behind bars again, having violated his probation by listing Harvard on his résumé. That’s what you get, I suppose, when you fool Harvard.

When Harvard fools you, a different set of incentives applies. As Jim Newell points out in an essay about Wheeler in the latest issue of The Baffler, the school’s legitimate graduates and grandees—the very cream of the meritocracy crop—count among their number many of the folks who engineered the subprime disaster and the bank bailouts that haunt our economy still. They haven’t paid for those crimes of misrepresentation and fraud, nor will they ever.

Never has the nation’s system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless. Our ruling class steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Madoff, missing equity bubbles and real estate bubbles and commodity bubbles. But accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to the people at the bottom, the ones who took out the bad mortgages or lied on their résumés. The pillars that prop up the system, meanwhile, are visibly corrupt: the sacred Credential signifies less and less each year but costs more and more to obtain. Yet we act as though it represents everything. It’s a million-dollar coin made of pot metal—of course it attracts counterfeiters. And of course its value must be defended by an ever-expanding industry of résumé checkers and diploma-mill hunters. The boundaries are artificial, and that is precisely why they must be regulated so intensely: they are the only thing keeping the bunglers and knaves who rule us in their jobs.

From Harper's Magazine, August, 2012
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