Md. Officials Seek Crackdown on 'Diploma Mills'

Maryland higher education officials are proposing to toughen accreditation standards in order to protect Maryland students against phony degree-granting institutions known as "diploma mills."

The Education Policy Committee of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which is writing the proposal, wants to require all for-profit schools to be accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

"It's about not wanting our students to invest a lot of money in an institution only to find out that it's a diploma mill," said Dr. Regina Lightfoot, the commission's director of planning and academic affairs.

The policy committee's proposal is still several steps from taking effect.

First, the Education Policy Committee must present the proposal to the full commission. Then it must be subject to public comment for 30 days. Then it will return to the Education Policy Committee and once again to the full commission before it can become part of the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR).

If approved, the regulation probably won't affect the state's existing four-year or community colleges, most of which are already accredited.

But the specialized trade schools like beauty academies and technical schools which are not accredited or are members of a specialized agency not sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education may need to apply for accreditation. At the end of fiscal year 2005, there were about 60 non-accredited career training schools with over 5,000 students enrolled across the state.

State law currently grants the Higher Education Commission the ability to approve educational programs in the state whether or not they are accredited.

Lightfoot says that accreditation is a way to protect students in a market full of specialty and distance-learning courses that may not measure up to current state requirements.

David E. Sumler, the commission's assistant secretary for planning and academic affairs, admits that the current regulations are not intended to establish goals of high quality in the schools, only to provide guidelines for program approval.

"Evaluating a school to see if it's real or not becomes pretty difficult for a local entity like a state," said Dr. George Gollin, who consults with state and federal government on accreditation.

The proposal is concerned with institutions that have or want to set up facilities inside the state of Maryland, with an aim at thwarting "empty" institutions, or those that use a post office box or non-school location within the state and administer programs mainly online.

Gollin cites the example of a company called Hamilton University operated by the Faith in the Order of Nature Fellowship Church and based in Evanston, Wyoming.

The institution came to attention in 2003 when it was revealed that Laura L. Callahan, a senior director for the chief information officer of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, acquired a Ph.D. from Hamilton, labeled a diploma mill by authors Sarah Carr and Andrea Foster in a March 2001 Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Hamilton requested a religion-based tax exemption but when officials investigated, they found the "school" located in an old motel with an on-site "chapel" that didn't even have pews for worshipers to sit on, said Gollin, who is also a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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