Life-experience diplomas from the Web are all the rage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (MCT) – The Web site for Ashwood University makes earning a college degree sound so simple.

“No need to study,” it proclaims. “Receive a college degree for what you already know!”

Similar sites stress “life experience” and proclaim, “Get your college degree within nine days!”

It’s the latest rage in the ever-growing world of online education, where all you need to obtain that college degree is an Internet connection, a few minutes and a credit card.

Web sites for obscure schools offer degrees based solely on your personal and professional lives. Transcripts and verification services are available, too.

Experts said there could be as many as 2,000 entities worldwide issuing life-experience degrees that are virtually worthless.

“This is a serious problem,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “And the level of attention and concern is rising.

“Life-experience credits have been around legitimately for many, many years. Reliable life-experience credits involve some documentation and review of what the life experience is. Some of it involves competency testing. When you use life experience where you don’t have evidence, then it’s a problem. And we’re hearing those stories more and more.”

The issuance of dubious degrees isn’t a new phenomenon, according to John Bear, who has consulted for the FBI and in 2005 co-authored a book called “Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold More Than a Million Fake Degrees.” What’s different now, he said, is that the Internet has made the process simpler and cheaper.

“This is their fondest dream come true,” Bear said. “The biggest expense 20 years ago was postage and advertising. Now they don’t have either.”

Meanwhile, higher education officials worry that dubious life-experience degrees devalue real college degrees. They’re concerned that people are getting jobs for which they’re vastly underqualified, dressing up resumes with dubious degrees in fields such as nursing and engineering and aviation management. Some states are attacking the problem legislatively, making it illegal to use such degrees to secure employment or further their careers.

How do life-experience degrees work? Here is one way:

Consumers troll the Web under search terms such as “life experience” and “degree” to find various places where they can purchase their degrees. They fill out brief application forms where they give some basic information such as whether they’ve ever attended college and describe the life experiences they believe have earned them a college degree.

Some Web sites let consumers select their own GPA, with the price going up as the grades go up.

Officials then review the application and determine which schools, if any, are willing to provide that degree.

A reporter for The Kansas City Star recently submitted an application to seeking a master’s degree in child development. He identified himself as a Star reporter, cited his role as the father of three children, and noted that he’s coached each of them in various sports.

That was enough, earning a congratulatory note that said: “We are delighted to announce the great news that … the evaluation committee at Ashwood University has accepted your application.”

The degree, which The Star didn’t purchase, cost $515.

Sometimes the degree comes from schools like Bennington University, not connected to Bennington College in Vermont. Its Web site ( provides precious few details.

What The Star found is that Bennington University copied the Web site of a legitimate college, Royal Roads University ( in Victoria, British Columbia. The two sites were virtually identical, with Bennington disabling many of the links and replacing the name “Royal Roads” with “Bennington.” Photos were largely unchanged, with the Royal Roads campus and university buildings portrayed as the Bennington campus and buildings.

When contacted by The Star and told about the Bennington site, Royal Roads officials were stunned – and steamed. They immediately sent a letter to Bennington that said Bennington’s site was “a clear infringement of Royal Roads’ intellectual property.”

The Bennington site was briefly disabled last week, but it was up and running as of Wednesday.

Officials there could not be reached for comment and didn’t reply to e-mail.

Experts say it’s not uncommon for schools such as Bennington to operate questionable Web sites.

They say many such sites offer little information about the school and its faculty. The “message from the president,” if there is one, often ends with an illegible signature. Many sites, like Bennington’s, don’t list so much as a phone number or location.

Meanwhile, the sites and degrees look legitimate.

“For the uninformed, it would be easy to be fooled,” said Leroy Wade at the Missouri Department of Higher Education. “The diplomas are very authentic-looking. Some of these outfits provide letters of recommendation. …

“It’s a very slick operation.”

And the trend is getting worse, he said, as more and more people seek shortcuts to promotions or pay raises.

Ashwood even goes so far as to have a separate Web site for employers. Nowhere on that site are the words “life experience,” which Ashwood student counselor David Reed told The Star is designed to “paint a picture as if the student is actually taking classes.”

In reality, Ashwood offers no classes at all.

Other officials with Ashwood, which Reed said was based in Sarasota, Fla., couldn’t be reached for comment. There was no telephone listing for Ashwood in Sarasota.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2004 said that 28 high-ranking officials at eight federal agencies held degrees based partly or solely on their life experiences, and that they received college credit for things such as riding a horse and owning tropical fish.

Last year at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, Fla., two officers were suspended and one resigned in the wake of a fake-degree scandal. The officers had purchased life-experience degrees and then received monthly bonuses. All later were ordered to repay the bonuses, a total that surpassed $3,000 for one officer.

“I don’t think many people have connected the dots to see how important this really is,” author Bear said.

Some experts and legislators said employers should shoulder more responsibility to verify legitimate degrees.

“It’s sort of like caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware,” said Missouri Rep. Ed Robb, a Republican.

“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to hire somebody, you should be interested enough to check references and all their information.”

Legislative change isn’t the answer, he said, because the problem “is something the private sector can solve.”

But it’s not always easy, experts say.

Many schools say they’re accredited by organizations such as the World Online Education Accrediting Commission.

What those schools don’t say, and what consumers or employers may not realize, is that the commission and other accrediting agencies are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

“There’s been a vast national dialogue over the past year or two about these issues,” said Kip Peterson, a spokesman for the Kansas Board of Regents. “It’s an issue of importance and concern in the higher education world.”