Credentials fraud now a global threat for universities

Diploma mills have been on the United States radar screen as far back as 1876, when then commissioner of education John Eaton Jr called them a “disgrace to American education”. Today, credential fraud in higher education is a billion-dollar industry, by some accounts. It has spiralled into a major threat for employers and university admissions offices. And it spans the globe.

The problem “goes way back… and it’s not going away”, Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, president and CEO of Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, told a packed room last week in Denver in the US at the annual convention of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

The United States is home to the largest number of diploma mills, with more than 1,000 known operations in 2011, according to Verifile, a UK-based pre-employment screening company, she said.

But the presentation provided evidence that academic fraud cuts a wide swathe, with scandals uncovered in recent years in Canada, Singapore, Kenya, Australia and Liberia, to name a few.

Headlines in the past few months alone hint at the scope of the problem, as well as the potential implications:
  • • In April, an elaborate sting operation involving a fake university led to the arrests of 21 brokers, recruiters and employers from across the United States who conspired with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently obtain student visas.

  • • That same month, The New York Times reported that its investigation of a Pakistan-based company that ran hundreds of degree and accreditation mill websites is “bigger than initially imagined” when it exposed the scandal last year.

  • • In January, the College Board, a US organisation that owns the SAT, a college entrance exam accepted by many US colleges and universities, cancelled plans to administer the test at centres in China and Macau amid suspicion that some students had cheated.
While bogus degrees have traditionally been a tool of choice for federal employees seeking a short cut to a promotion or pay raise, a confluence of trends, including growing student international mobility and an increasingly competitive global job market, are intensifying the pressure.

Moreover, the federal government won’t issue a visa to an applicant who cannot produce an acceptance letter from a university, so it falls to universities to do their due diligence from a national security standpoint as well.

The number of students earning a college degree outside their country of citizenship has more than doubled, from 2.1 million to 4.5 million, and the number will reach 8 million in 2025, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data show. And most university admissions offices probably aren't prepared for the deluge of applications.

“One of the big fears that schools have about jumping into the international arena is that they really are worried about the fraud,” Rick Torres, president of the National Student Clearinghouse, said in a phone conversation with University World News. The non-profit organisation handles more than 750 million requests a year for verification of education records.

Shady operators have been able to skirt state or federal laws because there are none that explicitly ban the practice, said Drew Feder, a co-presenter at the NAFSA session.

For US-based credential evaluators, Feder said, the current best defence is to shine a spotlight on phony institutions and documents, sharing details with the Federal Trade Commission, state lawmakers, the media and colleagues. “There’s not a system in place nationally or worldwide” to monitor the problem, Feder said. But the non-profit Association of International Credential Evaluators archives fraud reports that it receives.

Potential solution

A separate NAFSA session offered a potential long-term solution that is being hatched by a global enterprise known as the Groningen Declaration Network, or GDN.

Since it was established in 2012, some 50 stakeholders from more than 20 countries, including China, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and Australia, have signed onto the GDN, which aspires not to expose fraud but to develop a digital data system that would make it easier for universities around the world to ensure that academic records it receives are secure, authentic and delivered in a timely manner.

The concept is still in development, but UNESCO officials attended a Groningen gathering last month, and an early signatory was the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers or AACRAO, a non-profit group whose members are entrusted with protecting the integrity of academic degrees from more than 2,600 education institutions.

"Our institutions have significant [interest] in receiving documents in a much more secure fashion," AACRAO executive director Mike Reilly told University World News in a phone interview. "We would benefit if all... regions of the world participated in the Groningen process."

While the goal of the declaration is to create an ecosystem that can accommodate a seamless – and paperless – transfer of student data across international borders, combating fraud was one of the initial motivations for setting up these systems, says Herman de Leeuw, a key architect of the initiative. He began developing the idea as a forensic document researcher with the Dutch agency that legalises documents related to education, including diplomas and grades.

Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin are conducting pilot tests involving the National Student Clearinghouse and the China Higher Education Student Information and Career Center, both GDN signatories, that show a significant reduction in the number of phony credentials from Chinese applicants.

At the GDN’s annual gathering last month in Cape Town, South Africa, members continued to sort through a thicket of underlying issues, including how to recognise equivalent credentials across different higher education systems and how to ensure student privacy – a point that signatories emphasise.

“We’re focusing on the individual student, and giving that student control over his or her own data,” Margit Schatzman, president of the non-profit Educational Credential Evaluators, a GDN signatory, told NAFSA members in Denver.

Schatzman said an ongoing challenge will be persuading more administrations around the world to move from paper-based to digital credentials. But she said she sensed a palpable shift in the air this year at Cape Town.

“The Groningen Declaration is very aspirational. The question is, ‘How are we going to do this?’” she told her NAFSA audience. But discussions in Cape Town about how to formalise the network, she said, suggests that proponents are moving "into an era of action”.