Diploma Mills: 9 Strategies for Tackling One of Higher Education’s Most Wicked Problems


us higher ed export

Here’s another excellent report from World Education Services about an important issue that receives too little attention in the US and global media.  This is an issue I have been writing and speaking about since my IIE-Viet Nam days.  In fact, it was one of my “signature issues” and one that I have continued to focus on from time to time.  (Explore my blog for more information.) 

The above quote is one I’ve used when talking about this issue.  It refers not only to diploma mills but to institutions that offer substandard education and training, and are basically money-making machines, regardless of whether they are for- or non-proft.  This includes nationally accreditation institutions, many of which are in accreditation “no man’s land,” since the dissolution of ACICS.  (Check out this 2016 BuzzFeed investigative report that was the beginning of the end for ACICS.)  As the above graphic points out, many are located in the US and in California, in particular.

Thankfully, this is less of an issue in Viet Nam ever since the government, through its Ministry of Education and Training (MoET), said it would no longer recognize degrees earned from unaccredited institutions, i.e., rogue providers, nor would it allow Vietnamese institutions to partner with these bottom-feeding institutions.  There is also much more awareness about the value of institutional and programmatic accreditation as a means of quality assurance and maintenance.


US-Based Unaccredited HE Institutions in Viet Nam: A Look Back at the End of An Era

Here’s an excerpt from a 2016 book entitled Transnational Education Crossing “Asia” and “the West”:  Adjusted Desire by Le-Ha Phan, which mentions the work I’ve done to combat, counteract, and raise awareness about the activities of US-based rogue providers in Viet Nam and in general. 

Out of the many reported examples of problems and corrupt unethical activities in this sector, the media has circulated the work of Mark Ashwill, former director of IIE Vietnam (Institute of International Education) and currently working in Vietnam, who has identified the degree mills and no-name entities from America operating in Vietnam and as such alerted the stakeholders of the transnational sector to the consequences involved (Ashwill, 2010, 2012, Thanhniennews, 2012; Tuoitrenews, 2010).

Basic_sheep_75This is an issue I have been writing and speaking about since my IIE-Viet Nam days (2005-09).  In fact, it was one of my “signature issues” and one that I have continued to focus on from time to time.  (Check out my blog for more information and this article entitled Caveat Emptor! US Rogue Providers Discover Vietnam, which I wrote for the February 2011 issue of wRAP Up, A Newsletter for the Recruitment, Admission, and Preparation Knowledge Community.) 

If you read on, you’ll see that there’s not much work to do these days, at least in higher education, because of positive steps taken by the Vietnamese government nearly eight years ago.

The US exports some of the world’s best and worst higher education.  -MAA

This is a relevant quote I’ve used on occasion, referring not only to diploma mills but also to institutions that offer substandard education and training, and are basically money-making machines, regardless of status, i.e., for- or non-proft.  This includes nationally accredited (NA) institutions, many of which are in accreditation “no man’s land,” since the derecognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) last year.

To learn more about the context, check out this May 2016 BuzzFeed investigative report, which blew the lid off of this issue and led to the US Department of Education “derecognizing” ACICS, forcing all of its accredited schools to obtain new institutional accreditation by June 2018.  That decision remains unchanged to date, i.e,. in the new administration.  (Capstone, the company I work for, works exclusively with regionally accredited institutions in the US, the gold standard of institutional accreditation.  To my knowledge, it is the only company in Viet Nam and, possibly, the world with this policy.)

The Summer of Accreditation Discontent:  Seven (7) Years & Counting

While the issue of unaccredited schools still rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when it’s discovered that an embattled Vietnamese political or business leader has a degree (or two) from one of them, which spices up the scandal du jour, their heyday actually ended in August 2010 at the end of what I like to call the summer of accreditation discontent with extensive media coverage of this issue, including a widely publicized interview with me. 

That was when Dr. Nguyễn Xuân Vang, director of the International Education Development Department of the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) stated in an interview that unauthorized joint training programs are illegal and that the Ministry will not recognize the diplomas of programs offered in cooperation with unaccredited foreign partners.

(I’m) Not For Sale!

“Colleagues” from these edu-companies, you know, the kind of people that make you want to delouse after a short meeting, used a carrot and stick approach with me back in the day.  One example of the former was offering to fly me to Malaysia, business class, presumably, to “talk”, while the latter refers to the threat of legal action.  (As others have found out over the years, I’m not for sale and I don’t cave to threats.)

I like to think that I’ve cost these sleazebags millions of dollars in lost revenue in Viet Nam because of all of the media coverage of this issue and greater public awareness. 


Choosing Clients & Partners is a Two-Way Street: Quality Matters

Money is how companies with no ethical compass measure success.2-way-street

The company I work for, Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company founded in 2009, with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), works exclusively with regionally accredited (RA) institutions of higher education in the US.  As far as I know, it’s the only company in Viet Nam, and indeed the world, that has this policy. (If you know of another, let me know!  A prize to the first person whose answer I’m able to confirm.)

Why?  Because quality and integrity are more important than money.  Since regional accreditation is the gold standard of institutional accreditation in the US, students and parents can be assured that minimum standards of quality have been met and maintained.  US higher education fair attendees can be assured that there are no “bad apples” in the ballroom.  US higher education colleagues who choose to work with the company can be assured of honor by association. Capstone has politely declined to work with quite a few schools because the company you keep and the standards you uphold take precedence over cash flow.

Nationally accredited (NA) institutions, while “officially accredited,” are not in the same academic league as their RA cousins.  In fact, in terms of quality and ethics, some of them comprise a veritable rogue’s gallery of schools, including those that are essentially visa mills.  Moreover, the majority of these schools do not inform students and parents that most RA institutions will not accept credits and credentials transferred from NA schools.  Why is that, I wonder?

gold-standardFor most educational consulting companies, it’s all about “showing me the money”, which means they’ll work with anyone who can afford to pay them, including rogue providers (unaccredited schools), in some cases.  Money is how companies with no ethical compass measure success.  For Capstone, it’s about quality first, which I find refreshing in the often murky and foul world of educational consulting.


California South University: Fraud Alert!

Here’s another less-than-stellar California-based institution of higher education.  Note:  “California South University” is not to be confused with “California Southern University”, which has institutional accreditation by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC/regional) and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC/national).

As you can see on the 29.6.16 screenshots below, CSU makes two claims:  1)  it is accredited by the DETC, now known as the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC); and 2) it is “in the process of being an accredited Member of the Distance Education and Training Council…”  Neither assertion is true.  (If you don’t believe me, check with DEAC yourself.)

If you Google “california south university vietnam”, one of the first results, if not the first, is this blog post of mine from January 2011 entitled “where can i buy an accredited overseas phd?”  The second post in that series was uploaded a month later:  “CSU” Reprise (aka The Other Shoe Just Dropped).

cal south detc

cal south univ

Why are schools like CSU allowed to exist?  Because the “free market” is too free, the system is broken,  no one’s jamming their transmission and, at the end of the day, no one’s minding the store.  The US Department of Education has a lot of work to do, which it should be doing on a systematic rather than a piecemeal basis a la Northwestern Polytechnic University, the result of superb investigative reporting by BuzzFeed.


“best phd degree for purchase”

finally doneThis search term and others like it, e.g., p.hd buy, lead unsuspecting netizens to my blog which, of course, doesn’t provide information about how to buy academic degrees but rather rants and raves against diploma mills and rogue providers, most of which are based in the US, sorry to say.

Speaking of the US, those who have earned a Ph.D. are members of a pretty select group in that country.  According to the US Census Bureau, 1.77% of all US Americans age 25 and over have one.  That group is even more select in countries that do not have a mass education system.

Here’s what Peterson’s had to say about Ph.D. programs with the understated title Ph.D. Programs Are Rigorous Educational Experiences:

Ph.D. programs—for that matter, any doctoral program—will take years to complete. Depending on what you’re studying and how much time you can put into your studies and dissertation, doctoral programs can consume anywhere from 3 to 6 to 9 years or more. Earning a Ph.D. degree can be so time-consuming that many candidates cannot work full-time, and they often live on stipends and fellowships to help make ends meet while they haunt the research labs and libraries. These graduate programs are perhaps the most rigorous educational experience people can have, but when they are complete, the recipients are considered to be individuals who add intellectual and scholarly value to their fields.

Another point worth mentioning is that an estimated 50% of US doctoral students do not complete their degree.  Many of them complete their coursework but are unable to reach the summit, i.e., write and defend their dissertation, meaning they are forever ABD (“all but dissertation”).

What does it take to complete a Ph.D.?  Intelligence (brilliance is not a prerequisite but certainly doesn’t hurt), passion, creativity, a strong work ethic and, most importantly, perseverance.  It’s a long, hard slog and if you don’t have the fire in the belly and a good support system, you will never reach the light at the end of the tunnel, the promised land of degree conferral and life after your Ph.D. program.  You will end up in advanced degree limbo known as ABD.  Real Ph.D.s and the experience on which they’re based offer many tangible and intrinsic benefits that last a lifetime.  The slog is well worth it.

life after phdPrestige, of course, is why so many people want to buy one.  Why invest all of that blood, sweat and tears when you can fill out an online form, including your credit card information and, voilà, you’re “Dr.” Somebody.

Side Note:  While the Ph.D. is a research degree and most graduates pursue a career as a professor, whose primary tasks are research, teaching and services – in that order at many institutions – there are other career paths that take full advantage of everything on which the degree is based.

For those who buy a Ph.D. what happens though when people ask Where did you get your Ph.D.?  Just ask well-known people with fake degrees who have ended up in media stories about academic fraud.  A bit of advice for those who choose to buy their Ph.D.:  For God’s sake, don’t include it in your bio or LinkedIn profile!

The easy answer to the question about where to buy the “best phd degree” is that the best Ph.D. degrees are earned, not purchased like computers or smartphones.  Some things just aren’t for sale.


Thiết lập thông tin chính xác, nghiêm túc


Đây là bài cuối cùng tôi viết trong năm 2014, một năm thành công trên nhiều mặt. Dưới đây, tôi xin kể một tình huống đã trải qua khi dùng internet để dẫn chứng thêm nhận định về Internet , công cụ vừa mang lại những tiện ích, vừa là mối hiểm họa khó lường. Và bài học rút ra ở đây là gì? Hãy đọc, tiếp thu mọi thứ bằng đầu óc phân tích khôn ngoan, kiểm tra rõ ràng các nguồn và luôn đặt câu hỏi về nội dung. Hãy dừng lại và suy nghĩ trước khi đâm đầu theo hiệu ứng đám đông.

Vào cuối tháng 10, Đài truyền hình truyền thông Sài Gòn (SBTN) ở Garden Grove, CA, USA phát hành một bài viết (Không tìm thấy trang/Page Not Found), trích dẫn bài viết của tôi, kèm theo một danh sách các tổ chức giáo dục bậc cao không được kiểm định tại Mỹ đã được đăng tải ở đây từ năm 2010. Trước khi bài báo này được gỡ xuống (tôi có thể đoán được lý do, nhưng nếu chưa rõ ràng, tôi thiết nghĩ không nên phỏng đoán ở những diễn đàn chung), nó đã có mặt trên rất nhiều các blogs khác nhau và tôi cũng nhận thấy lượng truy cập vào trang blog cá nhân An International Educator in Vietnam tăng lên. Ngoài ra, tôi còn nhận được email cảm ơn về bài viết. Thực ra, danh sách kia được lấy từ 1 bài viết từ năm 2010 của tôi và được tôi cập nhật lại vào năm 2012. Nói cách khác, đó là thông tin đã lỗi thời, được xào lại để sử dụng vào mục đích chính trị . Vậy tại sao lại có việc bài báo này dựa trên những nguồn tin đã lỗi thời nhằm phục vụ các mục đích chính trị khác nhau? Hãy đọc thêm để hiểu rõ hơn về điều này.

Động cơ của bài báo của SBTN là nhằm bắt giữ Hà Văn Thắm, cựu chủ tịch Ocean Bank. Vào năm 2012, ông Thắm đồng ý cho công ty bất động sản Trung Dung vay số tiền 500 tỉ đồng (23,5 triệu đô la) mà không cần thế chấp. Các phương tiện thông tin đại chúng cho rằng công ty Trung Dung có khả năng bị vỡ nợ. Đến cuối năm 2013, tổng giá trị tài sản của ông Thắm đạt đến con số 1500 tỉ đồng (khoảng 70.7 triệu đô la), nâng ông lên vị trí thứ 8 trong số những người giàu nhất trên thị trường chứng khoán, cũng như tỉ phú ngân hàng tính theo giá trị đồng nội tệ.

Trên tài khoản LinkedIn và Wikipedia, ông Thắm nói mình “có bằng cử nhân Đại học Thương mại và bằng thạc sỹ tại trường Đại học Columbia Commonwealth. Ông cũng là tiến sỹ chuyên ngành Quản trị Kinh doanh trường Đại học Công nghệ Paramount”. Cả 2 trường đại học này đều không được cấp chứng nhận kiểm định tại Hoa Kỳ và có tên trong danh sách tôi nói trên, tạo ra một câu chuyện ngoài lề nhanh chóng trở nên rầm rộ trên các diễn đàn, bao gồm cả diễn đàn này. Cũng như nhiều trường hợp khác, nó đơn giản chỉ là một bài viết được SBTN sao chép từ bài blog gốc của tôi, đăng lên và sau đó đã phải gỡ xuống.


Xuất phát từ Quận Cam, Cali, không có gì quá ngạc nhiên nếu như các bài viết của SBTN luôn mang màu sắc chính trị. Ví dụ, họ đưa thông tin sai lệch rằng Bộ Giáo dục và Đào tạo (GD&ĐT – MoET) không lên tiếng gì về vấn đề này, và đổ lỗi cho Chính Phủ Việt Nam đã không có bất kỳ động thái gì. Trên thực tế, như tôi đề cập đến trong một bài viết vào tháng 8 năm 2010, bộ GD&ĐT đã không chấp nhận các chương trình liên kết bất hợp pháp và thông báo sẽ không công nhận bằng cấp của những chương trình liên kết được giảng dạy bởi các trường quốc tế không có chứng nhận kiểm định. Nhân đây, tôi cũng xin nói luôn về vấn đề này:

Dường như đây là một câu chuyện với hồi kết có hậu. Vào tuần thứ 2 của tháng 8, Giáo sư Nguyễn Xuân Vang, Giám đốc ban phát triển Giáo dục Quốc tế của bộ GD&ĐT đã trả lời trong một buổi phỏng vấn rằng những chương trình liên kết không hợp lệ sẽ bị coi là phạm pháp và bộ giáo dục sẽ không công nhận bằng cấp từ các chương trình liên kết giữa Việt Nam và các đối tác nước ngoài không được kiểm định. Theo dõi bản dịch tiếng Anh ở link này: Bộ giáo dục sẽ từ chối các chứng chỉ, bằng cấp được trao bởi những những chương trình liên kết kém chất lượng. Đây là những gì ngài Giáo sư yêu cầu, như liều thuốc giảm đau cho vấn đề xã hội nhức nhối này.

Tôi nhớ đến nhà cựu lãnh đạo cũ của Trung Quốc Deng Xiaoping, người từng nói “Hãy mở cửa sổ ra, hít thở không khí trong lành, đồng thời tiêu diệt hết ruồi muỗi và côn trùng”. Ở Việt Nam,khi mà những cánh cửa đang được mở ra, tôi cảm nhận cũng như nhìn thấy rất rõ những màn chắn được dựng lên bên cạnh những cánh cửa đó, để bảo vệ quyền lợi cho học viên.

Một điểm nữa mà bài báo của SBTN lẽ ra nên nhắc tới, nếu như những người biên tập bỏ đi nhận thức mù mờ , về việc những dịch vụ lừa đảo đang hoạt động(hoặc đã và đang hoạt động) tại Việt Nam đều có trụ sở ở Mỹ. Vậy tại sao chính phủ Mỹ không xây dựng nên một quy chế quốc gia để ngăn cấm các trường Đại học lừa gạt sinh viên, làm ô nhiễm thị trường lao động với những bằng cấp và chứng chỉ giả mạo, làm hoen ố danh tiếng của nền giáo dục bậc cao Hoa Kỳ? SBTN lờ đi thực tế rõ ràng này vì đó không dính vào mục tiêu chính trị của họ.


NOTE:  This is the Vietnamese version of this 31.12.14 post:  Journalism or Political Ax-Grinding?: Setting the Record Straight

Of US-Based Visa Mills, Diploma Mills & Other Rogue Providers

Government watchdogs say the recent visa fraud cases have exposed gaps in ICE’s oversight of schools that admit foreign students – a problem the agency says is being corrected. And experts say the scams hurt the reputation of the U.S. higher education system, which currently enrolls about 900,000 foreign students.

Fake Colleges Attract Attention From Federal Investigators
by Sudhin Thanawala (24.1.15)

The United States exports some of the world’s best and worst higher education. (MAA)

This is something I’ve been ranting and raving about since late 2006, especially in Vietnam but also in general.  While I’m pleased to see the USG address this issue (note: about 150 of the approximately 9,000 schools certified to accept foreign students are slated to be investigated as potential visa mills), I would also like to see the feds take a stand on the other rogue providers authorized to issue I-20s.  While most are not diploma or visa mills, they are unaccredited and by definition not subject to any serious quality assurance or maintenance.

One such university, International American University (IAU), based in Los Angeles (i.e., Orange County), was mentioned in a recent story here about faculty members at a university in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) with “unaccredited doctoral degrees.”  IAU appeared on a list I published on this blog in the summer of 2010, which received and, like a bad penny, continues to receive, widespread media attention.

IAU website
IAU website

By the looks of the IAU website, business appears to be booming in a number of Asian countries, including Vietnam.  (Don’t miss the “web photo gallery.”)  The bread and butter programs are two-year, four-year, MBA and doctoral (DBA) degrees in business, which can be earned online, onsite or through a combination of approaches, i.e., hybrid.  (A DBA will set you back 24k, plus fees.)  As with all degrees from unaccredited institutions of higher education, IAU degrees are not recognized in Vietnam in accordance with a Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) decision from August 2010.

This issue was addressed by the Vietnamese government nearly five years ago.  Since most rogue providers operating in Vietnam and many other countries are based in the US, it’s time for the USG to place restrictions on these institutions in order to safeguard the reputation of legitimate US higher education and cut off the “supply” of unaccredited education and training to international students in the source country.

The next step for the USG, after it addresses the “fake college” issue, as described above, is to create a national policy for unaccredited institutions that includes monitoring and regulating their activities on a national level, insisting that they take steps to become accredited within a certain time frame and making sure they are not authorized to issue I-20s until they receive accreditation.  The US should not be in the business of exporting substandard higher education to the rest of the world.