A licensed architect since 1986, Stephen Corbin always wanted a college degree, saying the lack of a diploma to hang on his wall left him with "an empty feeling."
Between running his own company--which specializes in public school projects--and raising a family, the Bakersfield resident never had time to polish off his course work. Instead he called a telephone number at the bottom of an e-mail advertisement offering degrees from a European university based on "life experience."
But the University of San Moritz, which granted him a bachelor's degree in architecture and a master's degree in business administration, is one of numerous names used by a worldwide Internet diploma mill that sells phony diplomas, trumped-up transcripts and ersatz honors such as summa cum laude.
"We went through a discussion of what I had done in my profession, running a business and everything like that," Corbin said. "And they said, 'Oh yeah, you qualify.' "
His degrees cost him $500 in a package deal. The "university" also offered him a doctorate, but that "would have been pushing it too much." He did allow San Moritz to backdate his architecture degree to 1985 to make it seem as if he had gotten it just before he received his license.
Like its low-tech predecessors that advertised on matchbook covers, the University of San Moritz, which also operates as Glencullen University and the University of Wexford, and numerous other regal-sounding diploma mills prey on ego and greed--college graduates earn 62% more than nongraduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But unlike traditional diploma mills, the online versions exploit the wide reach of the Internet to send millions of e-mail advertisements promising degrees without "tests, classes, books or interviews.... No one is turned down."
The history of so-called universities that sell degrees without any education or true evaluation of experience goes back at least to the 19th century, said John Bear, coauthor of "Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning," which includes information on diploma mills operating on the Internet.
"Nothing has much changed, except that on the Internet it's so much easier," he said. "You can set up a site in an hour and send out e-mails. Then you just need a printing press."
There may be dozens of these operations, with names such as Earlscroft University, thought to originate in Belgium, and Trinity College and University, with offices in Pakistan and Venezuela. But the Glencullen-Wexford complex is among the slickest.
The online diploma mills create elaborate Web pages that feature pictures of campus buildings, classrooms and student outings. But the images and much of the text often are copied from the Web sites of legitimate universities such as the University of Southampton or University of Teesside in England.
Question of Legitimacy
Former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who conducts seminars for college registrars on spotting phony transfer credits, scoffed at the notion that a prospective degree buyer could think the "universities" are legitimate.
"If you negotiate for your grade-point average, get a degree backdated and can pay extra for honors, I think your alma mater is of questionable veracity," he said.
But the digital facade is comforting to prospective degree buyers, Bear said. "In a few cases [customers] have convinced themselves the degree is legitimate."
They go so far as to list the degrees on personal and work Web pages. Among them: a congressional candidate in Northern California, a rabbi who does family counseling in the San Fernando Valley, an assistant director of financial aid at Occidental College and a student counselor/psychology teacher at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.
"There was a time when if someone had a degree from a diploma mill, you would hardly ever hear about it unless somehow it became public," Bear said. "But now people put it right on their Web sites."
The congressional candidate and rabbi maintained that they took classes through these institutions. The others acknowledged buying degrees, but said they felt they deserved them.
Acquiring a Doctorate
"I've been around, I've paid my dues. I just felt that this was one way of building up my own ego," said Stu Ferdman, 62, who teaches psychology and is a student counselor at College of the Canyons. He listed a "Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Psychology from Glencullen University" among his credits on the college Web site.
Ferdman earned a conventional bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in counseling from San Diego State. He didn't want to spend the time or money needed to achieve a regular doctorate. "I could not necessarily afford the $30,000 it would probably take to go through one of the USC or Pepperdine programs," he said.