Scam Schools Sting Legit Colleges

December 6, 2004
Print
Text Size:
A A

CHICAGO — The Hamilton University Web site presented all the jargon that legitimate learning centers use on their pages.

It also displayed a raised seal sporting such educational icons as an open book, a blossoming tree and a skeleton key. 

Hamilton claimed its bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs were accredited by the American Council of Private Colleges and Universities. The school, established in 1976, was affiliated with and supported by the FION Fellowship, a religious organization founded 55 years ago that let HamiltonUniversity educate the mind, body, and spirit according to a "nondenominational theocentric doctrine."

Finally, visitors to the site viewed photos of a university center that appeared neatly nestled in the typical American town of Evanston, Wyo.

But viewers of a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report last month now know Hamilton was nothing more than a literal degree factory, where a short paper and a big check substituted for pomp and circumstance.

Hamilton had no faculty or classrooms. Its university center was an old motel, a few driveways and a one-room, pew-less church that was built as a religious dodge to avoid taxes. The FION — which stands for Faith In the Order of Nature — FellowshipChurch was situated next to the motel.

And its accreditation came from a service that the owner of the university set up.

"The campus didn't exist. We never saw any faculty advisers at all. We never saw faculty at all, ever. There aren't any teachers," said Dawn Curtis, one of two former clerical workers at HamiltonUniversity who spoke with "60 Minutes" correspondent Vicki Mabrey.

Still, the employees said thousands of students "earned" undergraduate and graduate degrees from Hamilton through its online — or distance learning — program that was directed at continuing education students who were generously rewarded with credit hours for their life experiences.

Not all degree recipients were "nobodies," either. The report named current Cessna Aircraft President and CEO Jack Pelton as having listed two degrees in aerospace engineering from Hamilton on his resume.

The "60 Minutes" story added that the bogus degree business was worth $500 million a year to these imposters and that diploma mills were a big problem for legitimate colleges that offer distance learning.

Steven Crow agreed with that last point.

Crow, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities, said a loss of brand recognition — sort of an institutional form of identity theft — was the educational industry's major concern.

"For example, we had an IndianaUniversity in St. Louis for a while. So there is a sense that they must be legitimate because IndianaUniversity is legitimate," said Crow from his Chicago office.

"I have asked institutions to be vigilant about institutions that seem to be playing on their brand, and we have had instances where cease-and-desist orders came from a university to another one that was clearly playing on its name," he said.

The "60 Minutes" tale of HamiltonUniversity apparently raised more than a few eyebrows at HamiltonCollege, a valid higher-learning institution based in Iowa.

HamiltonCollege officials wrote the weekly CBS news program and said the report should have mentioned that its college, with locations in five Iowa cities, wasn't part of the investigation.

"I think they're concerned in the same way they've always been concerned about diploma mills," said Crow.

"It's just easier in this electronic age to put together the kind of Web site that seems quite official. The numbers seem to be higher and beyond that, the locations seem to be more and more imprecise," he added.

But Crow said the same problem plagued legitimate correspondence schools long before the virtual classroom was built.

"The unknowing and the gullible, I guess, could fall for these kinds of institutions," he said.

"60 Minutes" identified Rudy Marn of Key West, Fla., as owner of HamiltonUniversity. Marn has closed the college and removed its Web site from the Internet.

But "60 Minutes" said Marn started the same online programs with the same accreditation at RichardsonUniversity in the Bahamas. That school's Web site was accessible a few weeks ago, but not last week.

"There is an accredited place with a similar name like that in London," said Crow.

The state of Oregon lists degree factories at its Student Assistance Commission Office of Degree Authorization and both Hamilton and Richardson were on the list. None of the 247 diploma mills the state reported called Michigan home.

There is, though, a cheaper and quicker route to getting an online degree than by attending phony schools like Hamilton and Richardson.

For remitting just $399 to fakeddegrees.com, a "member" can instantly create a professional-looking undergraduate or graduate degree diploma purporting to come from a real university or college.

The Web site offers fabricated degrees supposedly coming from six public colleges and universities in Michigan, the largest being Eastern Michigan University.

The site claims the degree diplomas are of extremely high quality, intended for "novelty purposes only," and that it takes no responsibility for the use of these degrees in matters that involve fraud or dishonesty.

Fakedegrees.com, however, only accepts payments made by bank wire transfers and Web 2000 transfers and advises potential members not to send checks or money orders through the mail, claiming these payment methods aren't secure.

Its home base isn't listed on the site.         

Recent Articles by David Czurak

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus