For a price, it is possible to acquire unearned academic degrees from non-existent universities that market diplomas over the internet. The most sophisticated of these diploma mill cartels, based in Spokane, Washington, is now the subject of a multi-agency criminal investigation. It has used the turmoil in Western Africa to foster the illusion of recognition and accreditation by the Republic of Liberia. But these credentials were obtained through payments to government officials, and are no more legitimate than the supporting web of fake diplomatic missions, schools, accreditors, and credential evaluators created by the “Saint Regis” group. Their operation spans at least eighteen states and twenty-two countries, and their stable of schools has included over fifty diploma mills, some of which claim to sell degrees in medical fields. In late 2005 eight individuals allegedly associated with St. Regis were indicted on a mix of federal criminal charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery of foreign officials. Three have pled guilty so far, with trials for the remaining defendants scheduled for 2008.
This investigation, led by the U.S. Secret Service, came about after information from the higher education community and investigative journalists revealed the alarming mix of consumer protection, public safety, and national security issues raised by the activities of the Saint Regis group. Proposed federal legislation intended to suppress diploma mills that is now in committee is a direct result of the St. Regis case.
I will describe a number of issues in higher education accreditation, regulation, and enforcement using publicly available information to frame the discussion. I will also comment on the current status of the investigation of the Saint Regis group.