They are colleges in name only, diploma mills, where a degree can be bought and paid for with very little work. These bogus universities lack recognition from any legitimate agency. A FOX 5 investigation discovered some professors at the University of the District of Columbia who claim to have Ph.D.s, got them from a school that fits the government definition of a diploma mill.
Unlike accredited institutions where it takes years to earn a college education, even more for a Ph.D., Commonwealth Open University doesn't have the same requirements. A doctorate costs $3,450.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which oversees accrediting in the United States, considers a Ph.D. from there nothing short of a phony degree. Judith Eaton, CHEA's president said it's "highly unlikely" Commonwealth's degrees aren't worth the paper they're written on.
"An employer should want conformation of the legitimacy of the degree. I think they would have trouble getting it," Eaton said.
It may be worthless, but the degree didn't raise red flags for three UDC professors in the criminal justice department. That Ph.D. also earned the professors a bump in salary.
Angelyn Flowers, who teaches in homeland security and is Director of the master's degree program, earned her Ph.D. from Commonwealth Open University. So did Sinclair Jeter, an assistant professor in criminal justice, and professor Margaret Moore, who once ran the Department of Corrections under former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
"Honestly, that's a little bit insulting to the rest of us trying to obtain our degrees or bachelor's," said Tyrone Gibson, who is taking classes at UDC for the summer.
Students at the school were disturbed that the university was unaware of the questionable degrees obtained by faculty. The lack of legitimate credentials also angered them.
"That's serious. I worked hard for my first degree and I'm just shocked," said Alex Garrett, another UDC student.
Commonwealth Open University is registered in the British Virgin Islands. It has no address on its website, just a post office box. The university claims to be accredited by the Wiener School for Advanced Studies on Global Education and Distance Learning. In an e-mail, it explained its disputed accreditation and said, "No course is ever going to be accredited or recognized everywhere."
It's not recognized by the Department of Education for financial aid eligibility or a legitimate accrediting agency in the United States or the equivalent body in Britain. Under federal law, it meets the definition of a diploma mill.
"I would call them that (fake)," said CHEA's Eaton.
In response to our findings, Dr. Ken Bain, UDC Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, issued a statement saying in part, "The overwhelming majority of UDC's professors and leaders are extremely talented, credentialed professionals with doctorates, or other appropriate terminal degrees ... Rest assured, we will address anyone who does not meet our stringent internal review standards as we continue crafting the model university."
To show how easy it would be to get a degree from Commonwealth Open University, I submitted an application claiming to be a history teacher with 15 years experience seeking a doctorate.
Without requiring transcripts or proof of work, Commonwealth accepted me into its Ph.D. program. I was told all I needed to complete was a 50-page report, and of course, pay. I didn't enroll, but they made it seem like a piece of cake.
Compare that to a doctorate from a recognized accredited university, which usually takes more than eight years and cost an average of $39,700 in 2008, according to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
"At the very least, you're going to have to take doctoral study, you're going to have to do research and you're going to have to write a doctoral dissertation which could take years," said Eaton, describing the typical doctoral process.
Getting a Ph.D. in a matter of months or less should raise concerns about its legitimacy.
"If you get a diploma mill doctorate, you can get one by the time you go home for dinner," Eaton said.
It's not just UDC. An investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education found professors with diploma mill degrees across the country at all levels.
A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office found hundreds of government workers with fake degrees too. Some were bought and paid for at taxpayer expense.
D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie called for a thorough investigation. He chairs the Jobs and Workforce Development Committee that oversees UDC. In a statement to FOX 5, McDuffie wrote, "I am deeply concerned to learn of the questions raised about the credentials of three UDC professors who hold Ph.D.'s from Commonwealth Open University, a non-accredited institution ... I will continue to monitor the developments and will review the hiring policies of UDC at a future oversight hearing when the council reconvenes."
The diploma mill business is a billion dollar industry and hands out an estimated 200,000 phony degrees a year. A New York congressman introduced legislation two years ago to crack down on diploma mills, but it failed.
The illegitimate Ph.D.s could be potentially damaging to UDC's accreditation as it tries to raise standards. Attempts to track down the professors on campus failed. Professor Jeter did tell FOX 5 he did his doctorate work at the University of Paris but ran out of time. He couldn't find another university to accept his work except for Commonwealth Open University and claims he thought it was a legitimate degree. The other two professors did not return our calls requesting a formal interview.
"They should lose their jobs. That's like discrediting the university," said UDC student Romel Greene.
Professor Flowers has a law degree from Georgetown University. All three were hired at UDC before getting a Commonwealth Open University Ph.D. The unaccredited degree doesn't necessarily make them unqualified said Eaton.
"No, it makes their judgment highly questionable," she said.
Given all three professors have undergraduate and graduate degrees from recognized U.S. institutions, some would say they're too smart not to know a Ph.D. this easy is from a diploma mill.
Statement from Ken Bain, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia:
"The University of the District of Columbia has been undergoing radical changes, building a new kind of institution that will become the model for 21st century public higher education. The overwhelming majority of UDC's professors and leaders are extremely talented, credentialed professionals with doctorates, or other appropriate terminal degrees, from the world's leading universities and should be commended for the work they do every day. Even at that, we are raising the bar beyond credentials to focus on quality pedagogy and research and to become the center of "deep learning" that enriches and enhances our students' education and preparation and that benefits our communities and the world in which we live. Rest assured, we will address anyone who does not meet our stringent internal review standards as we continue crafting the model university."
Statement from Ward 5 D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie:
"As Chair of the Committee on Jobs and Workforce Development, I and my colleagues on the Committee are tasked with the oversight of several agencies including the University of the District of Columbia ("UDC").
I am committed to the goal of ensuring that the students at UDC receive a quality university education, competitive with similarly situated schools across the nation.
Key to the overall quality of a university is the quality of the instruction it provides. I am deeply concerned to learn of the questions raised about the credentials of three UDC professors who hold PhD's from Commonwealth Open University, a non-accredited institution. I have requested that UDC conduct an expeditious investigation into this matter. Furthermore, as part of the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Support Act the Council required that UDC develop and begin implementing a comprehensive "right-sizing" plan that will provide a strategic blueprint. The blueprint must address how the University can move forward in a manner that will not just address the fiscal concerns, but will also address all the University's concerns, including personnel.
I expect that UDC's leadership shares my concern and that they will conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate action. I will continue to monitor the developments and will review the hiring policies of UDC at a future oversight hearing when the Council reconvenes."
Statement by Commonwealth Open University:
Commonwealth Open University is an international institution registered and established in the British Virgin Islands (UK), which has students all over the world. Our educational programs are acknowledged as the foremost and we are very committed to quality in services. The University has affiliated organizations in several countries. COU is a member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, an NGO founded nearly 40 years ago, which is based in the UK Parliament with strong links to the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Accreditation and recognition is an extremely complex issue, given that there are hundreds of accreditation bodies around the world, and no course is ever going to be accredited or recognised everywhere. The important thing is that you choose education that is going to be meaningful for what you need. The best indicators of our credibility are the quality of our staff and the testimonials from our students. COU is accredited by the accrediting commission of Wiener School for Advanced Studies on Global Education and Distance Learning. WSAS is an independent certification and accreditation agency. Accreditation is an assurance and a guarantee that the learning offered is of uniform and sound quality. COU has been assessed, examined, and verified by WSAS. Commonwealth Open University is ISO 9001 certified. ISO 9001 is the internationally recognised standard for the quality management of businesses. COU is also organizational member of the United States Distance Learning Association. USDLA is the premier distance learning association around the world.
Our graduates have had remarkable success in having their degrees accepted. Many large corporations have accepted and paid for degree programs for our graduates and students. Several alumni are currently teaching at well known universities. Although we can not guarantee that a COU degree will be accepted, we will gladly supply information to potential or current employers or institutions. In relation to the credit transfer to other universities, it all depends on where you want to go. Some traditional colleges still take a dim view of distance education.
During the sixteen years we have been operating and offering degree programs by distance learning to students all over the world, we have not had negative news regarding the recognition of our degree programs. In fact, our graduates are highly satisfied after having completed their studies at this university. On our web site, you can find comments about COU given by some of our alumni and other institutions.
The magazine of the United States Distance Learning Association, January 1997, Volume 11#1 says the following: "A virtual university emulates a physical university, adding the global interactive advantage of computers in bridging time and space. It enables teaching and learning to occur anytime/anywhere. It has built in mechanisms for assessment and accountability. Virtual University programs may be housed within a conventional university, it can result from a consortium of universities, or it can originate in a teaching institution where no students are physically present, such as the Commonwealth Open University".
COU formally announced on December 15, 2009, the proposed development of a micro-satellite. The micro-satellite Igdal-1 will be a comparatively simple one weighing around 20 kg. It will have body-mounted solar panels generating about 40 Watt of electrical power and will be spin-stabilised. This is expected to provide impetus for other universities to take up similar projects in the coming years.
The Department of Sociology of the University is working on an investigation project on sociology of cyberspace. It is a collaborative project with coordinating professors from a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, philosophy, business, art, and information technology. The sociology of cyberspace examines the contemporary revolution in human interaction via computer.
The Department of Mathematics of the University will focus mathematical research in the fields of dynamic processes in the mantle, oceans, and atmosphere. COU is a participant in a special year of broadly based programs in 2013 on the Mathematics of Planet Earth. We invite the COU community to propose workshops, thematic programs, and conferences that are aligned with this global initiative.
The COU Business Consulting Service is a student-run management consulting team, employing top business administration graduates and members of the faculty from Commonwealth Open University's business programs. Since 2004, our mission has been to provide affordable management consultancy services to organizations. We provide a comprehensive range of consultancy services, specializing in the small-and-medium business, business start-up, and not-for-profit sectors. We offer the service and dedication of a professional consulting firm, but at a fraction of the cost.
The comment about unaccredited university is based on a list elaborated years ago that includes some distance learning schools that are not accredited in some states in the USA. As you know, we are not an American institution and, in consequence, we are not accredited in the USA.
There are a lot of universities that are not accredited in the USA, but probably we are mentioned on that old list from two states due to our students can be spread all over the world.
The term "accreditation" is an American concept that now begin to use every body but not clearly defined for other countries where the universities must exclusively fulfill the legal requirements.
All prospectives students from the USA are clearly advised by us that "We are not accredited in the USA".
Accreditation is simply a validation process by which institutions of higher education are evaluated. The standards used to conduct these evaluations vary. During the 1990s, controversy arose over the accreditation of completely virtual universities like COU. This issue has not yet been settled. Some of us think that new standards are needed to properly evaluate distance education. The fact is that many distance education programs cross regional borders and are offered all over the world. New international standards and bona fide agencies are needed in order to evaluate these virtual schools.
Even if two institutions are accredited they may not allow you to transfer credit from one to the other. You should avoid an accredited or unaccredited institution that grants degrees without ensuring students are properly qualified.
Accreditation and recognition is an extremely complex issue, given that there are hundreds of accreditation bodies around the world, and no course is ever going to be accredited or recognised everywhere. The important thing is that you choose education that is going to be meaningful for what you need. The best indicators of their credibility are the quality of their staff and the testimonials from their students.
COU was accredited by the the United Kingdom Commission for Consistent Learning until 31st December 2009. Some months before the UK-CCL informed us that they will not continue accrediting colleges and educational institutions any more in the future. This is why since September 2009 COU is accredited by Wiener School for Advanced Studies as you can see on our web site.
We did not have news about a University in Washington D.C. where several faculty members had earned degrees from COU. If you want us to confirm their achievements at COU, please provide us the names of them.
I can assure you that COU is a bona fide institution. We are at your disposal for any further information or clarification you may need.
Mary L. Rua
Admissions & Operations
Commonwealth Open University