Faking College Degrees to Feed One’s Family

Prostitution caused by degree desperation is hitting a new high in the 21st century. In 1980, when I finished my Master’s degree in English, there were no teaching jobs open for tyros like me, and the only job I could find was as a cashier for a downtown bookstore. The owner of that store had a sign for cashiers that said, “Must have a college degree.” After a few weeks of work I realized that having a college degree had nothing to do with being a good employee in a bookstore (just a few of my fellow cashiers read a lot or cared about the books), and the only reason that was a requirement for work, that I could see, was to keep the many urban minorities seeking work from bothering the owner.

 People with means can always buy a ticket rather than earn a ticket to the job market, promotion, or school entrance, and this sense of unfairness, of gaming the system, has caused many to question the value of college and corporate work over the years. In the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine Thomas Frank writes a blistering essay (titled "A Matter of Degrees") about our worship at the altar of college and the residue it leaves upon the minds and spirits of the worshippers. He notes, “Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred-thousand-dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.”

Frank goes on to list a number of high profile cases of fake degrees being used by deans and officials at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Bishop State College in AL, Texas A&M, and the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A background checker estimates:

40% of job applicants misrepresent in some way their educational attainments. And he reminds me that this figure includes only those people "who are so brazen about it that they’ve signed a release and authorization for a background check.” Among those who aren’t checked . . . the fudging is sure to be even more common.


I fear Frank’s call for more regulation of higher education degrees will lead to an even more byzantine system of credentialing; in education, in particular, where have we seen rules and regulations decrease in the past 50 years? Indeed, Frank ends this thought-provoking essay with these sobering thoughts:

Never has the nation’s system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless. Our ruling class steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Madoff, missing equity bubbles and real estate bubbles and commodity bubbles. But accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to the people at the bottom, the ones who took out the bad mortgages or lied on their resumes. The pillars that prop up the system, meanwhile, are visibly corrupt: the sacred Credential signifies less and less each year but costs more and more to obtain. Yet we act as though it represents everything. It’s a million-dollar coin made of pot metal—of course it attracts counterfeiters. And of course its value must be defended by an ever-expanding industry of resume checkers and diploma-mill hunters . . .