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Fake Degrees are Flooding the Job Market

On 26th April 2007 the Dean of Admissions of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Marilee Jones, resigned. It transpired that Jones had lied about her academic credentials, a particularly bizarre state of affairs given her position within the MIT Admissions Office and having written in her book Less Stress, More Success, “You must always be completely honest about who you are.”

Although the irony of being a university admissions gatekeeper while having lied on your own resume is a rare event, the phenomenon of acquiring fake university credentials is not. In the late 2000s it’s estimated there were more than 2 million fake degrees sold in the United States, each going for an average price of $1,000. By the early 2010s there were more than 3,300 unrecognized universities worldwide selling degrees to those willing to pay. Some of these were sophisticated operations, having offices in various European and Asian countries, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Today one can do a quick Google search and find numerous websites offering these services, some of which ironically encourage visitors to ‘trust’ them in their delivery of a fake certificate. So what’s driving this demand in fake degrees?

Screenshot of Google search results when searching for "buy a fake degree".
There are numerous websites that sell fake degrees.

Some of it comes down to status. For many people college admissions and degrees aren’t so much about the education one receives, but rather the lifelong rubber stamp of approval one gets for being associated with a highly regarded academic institution. This quest for ever-higher status drives the obsession of getting into a prestigious university, which itself has resulted in scandals such as bribing admissions officials and cheating on standardised tests.

Regardless of individual achievement and ability, the name of a university on your resume can be the difference between being rejected for a job or being invited for an interview. Prior to a presentation perceptions can be formed before a speaker even opens their mouth if it’s known they went to an Ivy league university. And the promotion of a book can leverage the educational background of an author if they graduated from a prestigious institution. In short, status makes a difference, so much so that people are willing to secure it through other means; namely through the acquisition of a fake degree.

In addition to status, competition for jobs is intense. There are expected to be more than 300 million university graduates in OECD and G20 countries by 2030, making it an uphill battle to distinguish oneself within a giant pool of job-seeking candidates. Culture also plays a part, especially in societies where academic excellence is prioritised. One may be able to shrug off bad exam results in one society, but feel stigmatised for those same results in another. As such it’s often easy to pontificate and point fingers at those who acquire fake degrees without the corresponding societal pressure that likely contributed to their decision.

Perhaps a factor contributing to the prevalence of fake degrees is the ease with which one can get away with it. As shown above, a quick Google search is sufficient to find all kinds of diploma mills. And with some companies receiving hundreds of applicants for a single position, fake degrees can often slip through the corporate forensic cracks. For certain businesses, verification challenges, lack of resources and technology limitations make detection difficult. And alongside advanced forgery techniques, it perhaps makes those uncertain about going ahead with a purchase more confident in doing so.

But is the moral outrage at such practices justified? Some argue that we all lie to a certain extent on our resumes, so it really that bad to have a fake degree on it too? Others point out that if someone obtained a job with a fake qualification and is performing to the expectations required of the company, then there shouldn’t be a problem. Some people make their stance clear; if you know a colleague has a fake degree, it’s none of your business.

For others, however, the idea of securing a job with a fake degree is inexcusable. In securing the job, the fake degree holder would have pushed out a qualified candidate that worked for several years to earn their legitimate degree. A fake degree holder is also seen as selfish, putting the business they’re working at at risk. If you don’t have the skills for the position you’ve acquired, you’ll be incompetent at best. In extreme cases unqualified doctors have attempted to practice medicine after having purchased a medical degree online.

The rise in fake degrees is perhaps a reflection of the instant-gratification culture that’s pervaded society over the past few decades. We want results now, not in 10 years time. Silicon Valley’s ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra likely resonates with those choosing to take the fake degree route. However for some people, a fake degree is a step too far. Alongside moral considerations, there’s the ever-present risk of one day being found out; something that keeps people focused, no matter how hard it gets, on earning their degrees through hard work.

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