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  • Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas by Allen Ezell, John Bear
  • Glenn Allen Phillips
Allen Ezell and John Bear. Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas. New York: Prometheus Books, 2012. 466pp. Paper: $21.00. ISBN—13: 978-1616-1450-71.

In an updated version of their 2005 book by the same title, Allen Ezell (retired FBI agent) and John Bear (author of several guidebooks on distance education) reintroduce the ubiquitous and largely unchecked problem of fake diplomas and institutions of higher education that confer degrees for little or no work. [End Page 282]

The authors give a brief history of purchased degrees, follow several stories about the culprits and victims of degree mills, and (in typical guidebook fashion) offer user-friendly checklists and references for readers who wish to avoid being swindled by degree mills or degree mill “graduates.”

Ezell’s dutiful service in the FBI as the founder of DipScam, a diploma-mill task force, provides special insight into several criminal cases of running diploma mills. The book includes more than 80 pages of DipScam or DipScam-related activities. This section reads like a collection of war stories. Indeed, that is its purpose. The passages are more entertaining than educational, but they give a unique context to Ezell and Bear’s concerns.

Additional chapters, including degree mill graduates in high-profile positions, animals with degrees, and the personal story of a degree-mill victim, add to the sensationalist, journalistic nature of the book. Several reference lists at the end of the book enhance this book’s contribution as a resource.

While this book is not scholarly, it is relevant to higher education. The book itself is “a consumer awareness work” (32). The authors hope to help readers “recognize the red flags that signal a less-than-legitimate enterprise…and develop sufficiently sensitive degree mill ‘radar’” (32). This book is for the student who wants to avoid the snares of “fake” degrees, the employers who may encounter a potential employee armed with a questionable degree, and (in smaller doses) the policymakers, legislators, law enforcement, and school administrators who should be addressing the ubiquitous presence (and danger) of degree mills.

These resources include a list of unrecognized schools (p. 300), a list of unrecognized accrediting agencies (p. 327), a list of counterfeiting services (p. 347), and Chapter 17, “The Media Professional’s Guide to Finding People with Fake Degrees” (p. 355). Degree Mills contextualizes these lists with history, provocative storytelling, and advice on how to best combat the effects of degree mills, but the reference sections are both the impetus and the wealth of the book.

Ezell and Bear offer a useful list of “92 Deceptive Tactics” that degree mills use to lure students (clients). Most notably, degree mills are known to use existing schools’ names with slight alterations (i.e. Stamford, Cormell, and Berkley); claim accreditation through unrecognized or questionable accreditation agencies; and promote their programs with fake pictures, fake faculty, and fake testimonials. The tactics do not provide a systematic way to determine the authenticity of a program, but they do offer several elements to consider when looking into a possible scam organization.

The conversation on this topic is sadly limited. At the time of printing, Ezell and Bear noted only three books “devoted entirely or largely to degree mills” (p. 24); and their own intellectual contribution to the conversion is a notion of (ironically) degree. The authors acknowledge that while several programs can be universally considered a sham or fake program, other university degrees may be more palatable to employers or acceptable for job advancement.

There is no perfect definition of what a degree mill is or is not; instead there are several descriptors that may lead one to conclude that a particular educational institution is legitimate or illegitimate.

Indeed, many of the lists of degree mills that have been offered (including the one in this book) are subject to debate. As Ezell and Bear point out: “A school whose degree can qualify you to take the bar or a state licensing exam in California can get you arrested on...


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