http://www.detnews.com/2005/schools/0507/31/B01-264776.htm Sunday, July 31, 2005 2 teachers' degrees under fire Huron Schools disputes awarding of doctorates from online, unaccredited college. By Dorothy Bourdet / The Detroit News Red flags The Better Business Bureau tells people to look for these signs that a college or university is too good to be true: • Degrees can be earned in less time than at a traditional college. • A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Some schools list accreditation by organizations that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, or imply official approval by mentioning state "registration" or licensing. When in doubt, check with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org. • Offers that place heavy emphasis on college credits for lifetime or real-world experience. • Tuition paid on a per-degree basis, or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Traditional colleges charge by credit hours, course or semester. • Little or no interaction with professors. • Names that are similar to well-known, reputable universities. • Addresses that are box numbers or suites. Source: The Better Business Bureau Comment on this story Send this story to a friend Get Home Delivery HURON TOWNSHIP -- After about a year of haggling, Huron School District officials are heading into binding arbitration with two teachers who earned degrees from an online university and want the pay raises they say should come with them. Jennifer Fox, a high school English teacher, and Aileen Thorington, a high school math teacher, earned degrees that could boost their salaries by $7,000 to $14,000. District officials argue that because the degrees came from Mississippi-based Cambridge State University, which is not accredited by a state-approved agency, the teachers don't deserve the pay hikes. "The school board felt these degrees weren't bona fide degrees, and we didn't believe it appropriate to pay these teachers additional money for ... degrees that were obtained from a very questionable agency," said Ken Appleby, school board vice president. The teachers, however, believed their degrees -- and the Cambridge State program -- were legitimate, and district officials did approve their study at the school before knowing if it was accredited. It's one of the first public cases in Michigan of teachers using advanced degrees from what district officials consider to be, at best, an illegitimate school and, at worst, a diploma mill. The case goes to arbitration Sept. 20 as a new state law cracking down on the manufacturers and users of fake degrees takes effect. The Authentic Credentials in Education Act, signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm less than two weeks ago, makes it illegal to manufacture fake academic credentials or use them to get a job, promotion or loan. A person or institution stung by someone using a fake degree can sue for up to $100,000 or actual damages, whichever is greater. It's unclear if or how the new law could affect the Huron case. But as lawmakers tackle the problem on the state level, parents in Huron Township have concerns that hit very close to home. Kelly Kwiecien's daughter, Kassie Williams, 14, will head to Huron High School this fall, and Kwiecien is worried that teachers cutting corners to get degrees set a bad example for students. "Are these teachers going to teach her the right way or the wrong way?" asked Kwiecien. "It's just not worth it. If you're not going to earn it the right way, then don't get it." Appleby agrees. "We're trying to teach our kids, and we don't want them cheating on tests. We want them to do their homework; we want them to work for it. When we allow our educators to take shortcuts, I think it sends a bad message," he said. But Huron Education Association President Mary Elton said Fox and Thorington did not try to cut corners and did substantial work for their Cambridge doctorates, including lengthy dissertations. "This was an awful lot of work, which is why nobody knew (it was an unaccredited institution)," Elton said. "This was definitely not a pay-a-fee-and-get-your-diploma-in-the-mail. These people did not do that." For students who hold a master's degree, minimum work for a doctorate degree is 60 credit hours including a dissertation, according to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Fox and Thorington took 30 credit hours of classes and wrote dissertations. Debbie Baer, assistant attorney general in Louisiana's consumer protection division, who was instrumental in shutting down Cambridge State University's operation in the state in 1998, called the school a "diploma mill." The school has been barred from operating in Louisiana and Hawaii. "We realized everything they did was a complete fraud," Baer said. "It was a scam on a huge scale." Fox declined to comment, and Thorington did not return phone calls to The Detroit News. Officials from Cambridge State, contacted at a phone number in Jackson, Miss., did not return phone calls. In a grievance form sent to the district last year, Elton points out that neither the teachers' contract nor district officials said anything about accreditation, and officials raised no objections to the teachers' intentions, which they had clearly outlined. Superintendent Thomas Hosler said he recognizes the district's failure to check out the school first. "It's one of those situations where I wish we could hit rewind and go back and check that," he said. "I think the teachers made assumptions, and I think the district made assumptions." If an arbitrator rules in the teachers' favor, district officials have estimated that during Fox and Thorington's careers, the district could have to pay them each $100,000 to $200,000 more for the Cambridge State degrees. "It is an issue that goes far beyond our school walls. There is a proliferation (of these kinds of institutions)," said Hosler. Experts estimate that unaccredited schools and the diploma mill industry is worth about $1 billion, with more than 300 unaccredited universities operating in the states and about 200 fake accrediting agencies. John Bear, a former consultant to an FBI diploma mill task force and author of "Bear's Guide to Distance Learning," said the battle is moving to the state level as legislators pass laws to deal with the problem of fake universities and degrees. "There is a small but growing trend of states saying we will never stop the fake school (from operating), but we can legislate against using fake degrees," Bear said. State Sen. Thomas George, R-Kalamazoo, sponsored the bill that created the new diploma mill law and said it's about time Michigan took steps to curb the problem. "Many of these (institutions) will give you credit for life experience, which might include movies you've seen, books you've read, jobs you've held or volunteer work you've done," George said. "It is a growing problem and that's why it needs to be regulated." One thing both Hosler and Elton agree on is that the teachers are committed and care about their students. "The teachers involved have been very good teachers for the district," said Hosler. You can reach Dorothy Bourdet at (734) 462-2203 or [email protected].