Degrees of Deception - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Degrees of Deception

About the Series

 

Improving your education can help you stay ahead in turbulent economic times.  But the Eyewitness News Investigators found it pays to check out the program you choose to advance your abilities.  One local company has spent thousands for its employees to get degrees over the Internet.  But is the university they chose a diploma mill?  Investigator Sandra Chapman reports a story of employees facing layoffs now set up for another letdown.

Part One

 

Eight hundred workers at the Indianapolis Chrysler Foundry are on notice:  come 2007, work here will cease.  The foundry is phasing out operations and shutting down.  

 

“Without a college education, you’re not going to go nowhere and make this type of money,” said foundry employee Cantrell Butler.  “And a lot of guys feel like they're at that age where they don't want to go back to school.”

 

But the Chrysler Corporation is giving its employees reason to reconsider school.  The company offers workers up to $4,600 a year in tuition assistance.  The only requirement:  that the courses are from an accredited institution.

 

And workers are taking advantage of the benefit by the dozen.  More than 70 signed up for a school called St. Regis University, an online program based in Liberia, West Africa.  Unlike traditional college students, these workers have gotten their degrees on the Internet and without taking classes.

 

Chrysler, with the help of the local UAW, promoted and paid for the St. Regis program.  With 76 employees enrolled, that's a minimum of $42-thousand dollars.  But when Eyewitness News checked into St. Regis, we found some troubling practices that raise questions about the validity of the school.

 

The issue:  whether it's simply in the business of selling diplomas.  At St. Regis University, we learned, work experience goes a long way – as long as it comes with a payment.

 

One Chrysler worker, who asked to keep his identity secret out of fear of retaliation, said he initially thought the St. Regis degree program was a joke.  Now he says it's an outrage.

 

“They're getting screwed over,” he said of the participating employees.  “You hand someone over $2,000 and they look at it and say thanks for the money and hand you a piece of paper.  How much education are you going to get from that?”

 

Eyewitness News learned that St. Regis University is under scrutiny by several states and the federal government.  In Oregon, education officials list the school as a diploma mill.  In Georgia recently, six public school teachers were ordered to pay back raises they received after officials discovered their advanced degrees were from St. Regis.  And this week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is holding congressional hearings on fake diploma operations – and St. Regis is among the schools that will be discussed.

 

We decided to put the school to the test.  A WTHR administrative assistant with a high school diploma and two years of general studies courses clicked onto the St. Regis University fast track for a $99 evaluation.  On her application, she provided general job descriptions but no employment dates or other specifics.

 

No problem – the fast track is just that.  Within 30 minutes, she received an e-mail response with authorization for two bachelor’s degrees and four certificates.  All St. Regis wanted was a payment of $895.

 

That's right.  At St. Regis, you can get a bachelor's degree for $895, a masters degree for nearly $1,000 – even a doctorate for $1,500.

 

In this case, once our payment was processed, we received proofs of official documents, including a bogus transcript that gave her high grades for classes she never took.  Her grade point average – 3.35.

 

That kind of quick turn-around is no surprise to University of Illinois physics professor George Gollin, who is waging a campaign against St. Regis after learning how easy it is to get a degree through the program.

 

“They have shown that they do not evaluate clients,” Gollin said.

 

He took a high school equivalency test through a St. Regis-affiliated school.  After randomly filling in the blanks, he scored only 26 percent, but it was good enough at St. Regis for a high school certificate and an associate's degree.

 

“They were going to send me diplomas after performance on a test that would have been worse than three quarters of the pigeons on the street would have done,” he said.  “If that's not a diploma carrying no information about my abilities, I don't know what is.”

 

For nearly a month our repeated efforts to talk with officials at Chrysler have resulted in numerous delays.  They have yet to comment on St. Regis, but just last week a corporate spokeswoman, Mary Beth Halprin, told us auditors from Chrysler's National Training Center were in town to review the Indianapolis training programs. 

 

Despite his experience with the school, Gollin was surprised to learn about the use of the program at Chrysler.

 

“When someone actually takes a look at the credential and understands what it means then the person who's acquired the credential is in rather major peril of losing their job,” he said.

 

The Chrysler insider agreed.

 

“I don't hold the recipients of the degrees at fault or liable, but the people who are pushing this,” he said.  “Ethically, it's criminal to me for someone to do that to a person.”

 

 

Part Two

 

From the welfare roll to the honor roll – Jackie Wagner, a 38-year-old single mother, is reaping the rewards of six years of study:  an associate's degree from Ivy Tech State College.

 

“The last couple of semesters I cried right before the semester because I was just getting tired,” she said.

 

She was tired from juggling a full-time state job as an administrative assistant, raising two children and going to school two nights a week.  But Wagner understands an education costs – and not just money.

 

“You have to put in the time, put in the hard work and wait for the outcome,” she said.

 

Wagner said she has no regrets.  Her Ivy Tech degree will stand on its own merit.   But not everyone's willing to do what she did.  The lure of impressive credentials at a cut rate and with little investment of time can be hard to resist.  An Eyewitness News investigation found that's just what happened at Chrysler's Indianapolis foundry.

 

Seventy-six Chrysler employees enrolled in an Internet college degree program offered by St. Regis University back in February.  In June they graduate.  But they didn't attend classes or complete course work.  Instead, the credentials are based on work experience and the amount Chrysler was willing to pay.  In this instance, 76 employees would cost a minimum of $42,000 for associates, bachelor's and even doctorate degrees. 

 

“They're really proud of this,” said one Chrysler insider, who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation.

 

He said he was disturbed to learn his co-workers weren’t being offered a real education.

 

“Everyone I've spoken with told me that they were getting a degree in such and such,” he said.  “And I said, why did you get that degree and they said, well they told me I was qualified for a couple – pick whichever one I wanted.”

 

But what does a St. Regis University degree really represent? 

 

We went to a conference of college credential experts in Las Vegas, where exposing fraudulent diploma operations was on the agenda.  At the top of the list:  St. Regis University.

 

“St. Regis University is not a recognized institution,” said Dale Gough of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers – one organization St. Regis claims approval from.

 

Gough, who trains educators how to spot fraudulent credentials, said St. Regis is a farce that has no credibility in the United States.

 

“The requirements to get these pieces of paper are so minimal,” he said.  “There's no accredited institution where you can get a degree in a matter of minutes.  It’s absurd.”

 

The St. Regis University website says it is based out of Liberia, West Africa, and accredited by the Liberian Embassy.  But Gough says that's disputed.  In fact, the school once claimed to have a Washington D.C. office, but he said that was nothing more than a maildrop inside a United Parcel Service store.

 

“There's no one that you can get your hands on to ask these questions,” he said.  “It's a virtual university and it exists only in the cyber world.”

 

We tracked down one St. Regis director to an Arizona phone number.  Richard Novak is the executive vice chancellor.  We asked him about the school's accreditation in the United States.

 

Novak said St. Regis is not a university in the United States.  So what good is the degree for people here?

 

“Oh, please,” Novak said.  “You think the United States is the only country that has the power to say who's right and what's wrong?”

 

With that, he hung up the phone.

 

Eyewitness News later received an e-mailed press release from a Wisconsin-based spokesman for St. Regis that said the university was conducting an internal investigation to improve its “prior learning assessment” program – which awards individuals degrees based on previous work experience – and prevent cheating.

 

But the release defended the St. Regis record.

 

“Many people have studied and researched on their own,” it quoted St. Regis president Jallah Faciann as saying.  “If these individuals can demonstrate competency in these studies there is no reason not to grant college credit for this learning.”

 

Gough, however, said credit from St. Regis doesn’t amount to much.

 

“You can't go off and deal with an institution that is not accredited or not recognized and really provide your employees or your former employees any real kind of service,” Gough said.  “You're doing them, in fact, a great disservice.”

 

As Jackie Wagner celebrates the payoff of her hardwork at Ivy Tech, she feels compassion for the Chrysler workers who will soon be out of a job and a legitimate degree.

 

“If you're going to do it, do it right, put in the time and make that sacrifice, because it will pay off in the end,” she said.

 

Followup

Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News

(This report updates the response of St. Regis representatives regarding its rewarding of degrees within three days.)

Indianapolis, June 2, 2004 - A St. Regis college offers a degree earned and approved within 30 minutes online. Payment and delivery take just a three-day turnaround, with credentials based on classes never taken, complete with letter grades that give honor society status.

St. Regis calls it a degree by prior learning assessment.

Experts from the Indiana Commissioner on Higher Education call it troubling.

Jeff Weber of the Commission on Proprietary Education says, "I just have a huge concern about operations like this."

The St. Regis operation is the same school the Indianapolis Chrysler foundry payed more than $50,000 to for various employee degrees.

But after an Eyewitness News investigation into St. Regis last month, Chrysler said, no more, and St. Regis is feeling the heat.

Eyewitness News caught up with two faces behind the program called to town to face questioning from employees at the Local Autoworkers 550 Union Hall.

Robert Stefaniak of St. Regis watched the Eyewitness News report and said the degree that Eyewitness News obtained within a matter of days should not have been awarded. "That shouldn't have (happened)." he said.  "And as fact that was...in fact in a way you did us a real service now didn't you?  Because you pointed out something that we were able to literally tighten up."
      
"Our families say, 'Look at that. He's trying to buy a degree. He's getting a degree from a diploma mill. What kind of respectable person is he?" Richard Roberts is one of 94 Indianapolis Chrysler workers in line for a St. Regis degree.

He and others with 10, 20 and close to 30 years of work experience and training believe they are entitled to their bachelors degrees. "I've had classes at (Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis). I've had classes through Vincennes, Indiana.  I've had classes at Ivy Tech State College," according to Roberts.  "All of this was put together to award me this degree."

And John Schissler, another Chrysler employee, adds, "I've raised a family. I've been in the service. I haven't had time to finish going back to school because I had to raise a family."

Chrysler training coordinator Harold Bryant concedes there were no St. Regis classes and that the degree is subject to scrutiny. "Maybe it's a life desire. Maybe this degree will never do anything for me. But maybe it's just for personal verification."

If it's for future employment, a word of warning from St. Regis itself, "We caution them to look into it if that's the reason," say Ishaq Shafiq of St. Regis. "Make sure that if it's a particular licensing agency you're trying to meet educational requirements."

Powered by WorldNow