Earning a high school diploma is tantamount to taking your first step on the ladder of American success– wedged somewhere in between your first high school job as a pizza delivery guy and your first college job as a…pizza delivery guy.
But without that essential first step, life is…bleak.
So those who have not graduated, for whatever reason, find themselves an easy target for scammers. And these scams represent a disturbing national trend: Education is increasingly becoming an avenue for profit, rather than a social good.
The FTC announced last week that it is pursuing a case against several companies selling fake diplomas online. These ‘diploma mills’ claimed customers could earn an official high school degree by paying $200 or $300 in fees and taking an online test. Their marketing materials assured degrees could be used to apply to college or for jobs, when in reality they are quickly exposed as invalid by potential employers and schools, according to the FTC.
Diploma mills are money makers. One Florida company being investigated reportedly raked in $11 million from the scheme. It makes sense: the schools prey on anxiety of people in a powerless situation looking for a quick fix.
The scam, however, reflects a few concurrent trends worth exploring:
1.) The Upward Spiral of Accreditation
The power of the paper has been steadily growing over the past decade. Jobs that used to require a high school diploma now demand a bachelor’s or even master’s degree. This is partly due to economic shifts. Manual labor jobs, which did not require any specialized accreditation, have largely been replaced by more efficient technology or machinery, leading to an overabundance of labor in relation to jobs available. To distinguish oneself among the glutted labor market, you must make yourself unique. Adding some alphabet soup after your name (BA, MA, PhD, MD) has been the encouraged path for most– even though the degree may not in any way reflect the skill set you need for a particular job.
It leads to a perverse upward spiral of educational attainment. If more people have high school diplomas, you need that bachelor’s to set yourself apart. But once everyone has bachelor’s, you better get to working on that M.A. and so on.
Which leads to…
2.) The Rise of the Education-Industrial Complex
The market for education— and I specifically use the word market– is growing FAST. And for-profit institutions have taken notice. Hence, we see the diploma mills. The for-profit colleges that encourage students to take on an absurd amount of debt to attain a meaningless degree (those colleges are lining their pockets with federal loan money that their students cannot hope to pay off). The contracted charter schools that promise to run a cheap, efficient school with underpaid teachers and staff, yet somehow achieve equal education for all. Selling education is a logical way to make a buck.
In sum, the increasing demand for a degree has led to an expanding market– and some capitalist vultures who want to suck off the carcass of education.
So what is to be done?
In theory, it would be good to reduce the demand for such meaningless and expensive paper. People are getting degrees just to get degrees–because it puts their foot in the door (and let’s not even get started about what a barrier to success this is for people of low socioeconomic status!).
Education shouldn’t be a degree factory, though. Education should impart on students general problem solving and critical thinking, and then maybe provide skill sets that reflects the actual job market and not the imagined one of years bygone. This is easier said than done, however, and doesn’t address the current pressures of the labor market that are driving this demand.
In the mean time, government and social oversight of those who would take advantage of these market pressures is extremely necessary. Education should be a public good, not an opportunity to skim off the top. The FTC’s investigations into diploma mills and for-profit colleges are an important first step, but we also need to spread the word that not all degrees are created equal– and that knowledge is something more than the letters behind your name.