Tackling diploma mills’ new product: life experience degrees

A recent study draws attention to the unique identifying features of new category of product provided by diploma mills which is called ‘Life Experience Degree Offerings’ (LEDOs) in a bid to facilitate action to tackle the harmful practice.

By exposing how LEDO products deceive consumers and stakeholders, and the methods by which they feign legitimacy, more concrete strategies can be developed to warn potential consumers and highlight the ramifications of engaging in this form of organised crime, argue the authors of “Welcome to the University of life, can I take your order? Investigating life experience degree offerings in diploma mills” published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity on 1 October.

The study, authored by Jasper Roe at James Cook University Singapore and Mike Perkins at British University Vietnam, describes LEDOs as a “specific type of product and service available from questionable Higher Education Institutions or diploma mills which offer higher education qualifications and credentials based on the submission of a resume or CV alone, rather than genuine professional experience”.

Besides uniquely capitalising on the misuse of the principle of ‘accreditation of prior learning’ (APL), LEDOs-offering websites seek to legitimise the external value of a degree by providing ‘verification’ services, and the organisation itself, by relying on a facade of accreditation obtained through accreditation mills, the study notes.

“However, there is a significant gap between the well-established and legitimate process of granting exemption based on earned proficiency through APL and the unverified, immediate turnaround of these websites, in which mailing a resume or curriculum vitae will result in the conferring of a degree,” it says.

Value proposition

“The key component of the LEDOs value proposition is to gain value (that is, the title and certificate) without financial cost or time commitment,” the study points out.

“This is done by presenting their case as a loophole which acknowledges that time spent in one's existing career is sufficient to obtain such qualifications.”

The study notes that “rapidly inflating cost of higher education, along with the potential to improve one’s life conditions in an uncertain and changing socioeconomic environment, may contribute to the operation of these services”.

Academic credentials maintain an important position in society and provide significant cultural capital as it leads to obtaining recognition in the labour market, progressing up the career ladder and translates into economic gains, according to the study.

For example, in the United States, holders of a bachelor degree may earn up to 84% more over their lifetime compared to high school graduates.

“It is probable that such businesses prey on users’ lack of familiarity with the complicated process of gaining credit for prior personal experience and may deceive them into believing that their fraudulent qualifications have value,” the study notes. “This deception is key to understanding the difference between LEDOs and diploma mills that offer falsified testamurs and transcripts which customers are likely to use for illicit purposes.”

Unique features of LEDO websites

Through a comparative analysis with contract cheating websites, the study highlighted the key features and persuasive strategies employed by 10 diploma mill websites which provide a specific variety of illegitimate credentials – referred to as LEDOs – to attract and convince potential clients.

“Rather than existing as part of the general fabric of diploma mills, it seems that LEDOs are a niche product category with unique identifying features,” the study argues.

The findings indicate that “on providers’ websites, the LEDOs are framed as a tool to achieve greater socioeconomic opportunities, and the quality and appearance of the physical diploma and accompanying documents play a key role in the LEDOs’ value proposition, while references to the acquisition of knowledge and process of learning are absent”.

The study also points out that LEDOs “are typified by the promise of accreditation and verification services, which are the two most common keywords used in the description of LEDOs on diploma mills’ websites”.

The findings indicate that “on the highest quality sites offering LEDOs, features such as money-back guarantees, detailed explanations of the value of a higher qualification, and the use of language that prioritises verifiability, legality, and legitimacy are all employed to persuade the user”.

The study also notes the use of a highly artefact-focused approach which places attention on “the physical diploma and accompanying documents, in some cases down to the materials used to typify legitimacy and quality (such as a leatherette binder)”.

“This approach prioritises artefacts as a physical confirmation of education but de-emphasises the value of education as a process itself,” the study notes.

Similar to contract cheating sites, the study indicates that LEDO websites appear to be complex and have a substantial market supporting them but they seem to lack some of the persuasive design features commonly found in contract cheating sites as there are fewer interactive and persuasive features such as live chats found in contract cheating sites.

“This could suggest that the market for LEDOs is not as developed as that for contract cheating services, or conversely, that the market is so mature and efficiently fulfilling its niche that the additional benefits of technology do not equate to an increase in value or service, and thus are not required,” the study explains.

Significance and implications

The study’s authors write that their research has real-world implications and significance for academia, the job market, and individuals seeking to benefit from higher education.

“Although we do not condone elitist approaches to the reputation of university qualifications and encourage inclusivity, in academia, specifically, it is imperative that we are aware that fraudulent, unearned credentials may be used to gain employment by deception,” they write.

“As more research develops around the LEDO product, further action can be strategised on behalf of institutions and governments to address these harmful practices.”

Sarah Eaton of the University of Calgary and Jamie Carmichael of Carleton University told University World News in a joint response that the problem of fake degrees “operates within a sophisticated ecosystem, with various commercial services that work together to undermine, and destroy the value” of higher education.

“The commercial services intersect, which strengthens their service complement,” said Eaton and Carmichael who are the editors of a 2023 book entitled Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education.

“We have defined these services as contract cheating, paper mills, admissions fraud, and degree mills,” said the editors.

“Fraudulent degrees are a serious threat, and involve internal and external risks,” they said. “In our research, we found that those working in either admission or registrarial services did not feel confident detecting fake degrees, even though training was provided … It was also uncovered that there are systematic workload issues, and the absence of auditing processes at the various data points.

“Moreover, there seems to be an overall trend of ‘unconcern’ and this global indifference was also reflected in other studies,” Eaton and Carmichael said.

They said they had had the opportunity to work with Allen Ezell, a retired US special agent, who headed the FBI’s DipScam task force charged with disbanding diploma mills and wrote a chapter in the book Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education, edited by Eaton, Carmichael and Helen Pethrick.

Putting solutions in place

Eaton and Carmichael said: “Defining the problem, awareness, and understanding the ecosystem, is the first step towards putting complete solutions in place and for scholars to continue this important work.”

They said a call to action was needed “as lack of concern was apparent, as well as the focus on the individual to be punished, versus the role of the institution in putting the appropriate checks and balances in place through quality assurance bodies”.

“If not addressed, there will be societal implications that can deeply engrain inequities,” Eaton and Carmichael warned.

“The problem will continue to evolve, adversarial responses can be anticipated, and we cannot become complacent.

“For instance, we can consider the catalyst of artificial intelligence and how this might fuel these enterprises even further by decreasing their cost, and increasing their production.

“Collaboration with other institutions, both locally, and internationally, students, government bodies, is the only way forward to curtail these enterprises. We are stronger together,” Eaton and Carmichael said.