July 18, 2014

Merced High School District manager’s degree questioned

A Merced Union High School District employee used what experts believe is a degree from a “diploma mill” to obtain a higher-paying job with the district, but school administrators have taken no action and the employee remains on the job.

A Merced Union High School District employee used what experts believe is a degree from a “diploma mill” to obtain a higher-paying job with the district, but school administrators have taken no action and the employee remains on the job.

Buying a diploma or attempting to buy one is a violation of California’s education code, a misdemeanor punishable by jail time, fines or both. The case was investigated by the Merced County Sheriff’s Department earlier this year, but no charges have been filed.

Anthony Thomas, assistant information services manager, was hired in March 2002 as a network engineer, earning $32,448 a year. The 43-year-old now earns $77,084 after a promotion in July 2011 landed him in his current management role.

According to his job description, Thomas’ position requires a combination of education and work experience equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information systems, or closely related field and three years’ experience in programming analysis, databases and other technical skills.

On his LinkedIn page Thomas listed a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Almeda University. It awards “life experience” degrees without books, studying or exams, according to its website. It is not accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

In interviews with the Sun-Star, multiple education experts said Almeda University is an example of a diploma mill.

‘Dropped the ball’

MUHSD Superintendent Scott Scambray did not respond to numerous interview requests. Thomas declined comment when reached this week.

Board of trustees President Sam Spangler said the board may have “dropped the ball” in addressing the degree. Spangler said he’ll put an item on the Aug. 13 meeting agenda to discuss the issue in closed session.

District officials have never dealt with such cases, Spangler said, but he believes there needs to be closer scrutiny of degrees.

“We need to make sure the degrees meet the requirements of that specific job and they’re from accredited schools,” Spangler said. “It has to be a bona fide degree, so if it doesn’t meet the criteria, we should definitely do something about it.

“Maybe we dropped the ball on this,” he added, “and this will definitely be placed back on the agenda. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still open, and I haven’t resolved it.”

Questions about Thomas’ degree surfaced last year when a former Merced College manager who worked with one of Thomas’ employees began researching Almeda University.

“I didn’t recognize the name of the school and I was curious. I wanted to know what this place was,” said Steven Alexander, who now is the IT director at Madera Unified School District. “When I started Googling it, I saw stories about it being a diploma mill and people getting in trouble for using its degrees.”

Alexander detailed his concerns in a June 2013 email to Scambray and the human resources manager at the time, Sandy Schiber. Receiving no response, Alexander sent the email to all five members of the board of trustees.

“I’m deeply bothered by people in my profession who overstate their skills, abilities or credentials,” Alexander wrote.

Alexander received no response from board members.

What’s a diploma mill?

A diploma mill is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as an entity that “offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary training.”

Experts say a diploma mill lacks accreditation by a legitimate accrediting association, federal or state government agency; requires little or no coursework and degrees are obtained in less time than legitimate schools. Another indicator is diploma mill degrees are not accepted by other schools or transferable for credit.

Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who has researched diploma mills since 1980, said Almeda meets the criteria of a diploma mill because it offers “degrees” in exchange for money, the diplomas were banned in several states and it has no campus or full-time faculty.

Almeda University did not return phone calls and emails from the Sun-Star requesting comment.

Almeda University claims its programs take “far less time and money” than traditional schools, but the institution “cannot guarantee that everyone will accept your degree,” according to its website. It cannot accept federal student aid programs or GI Bill education benefits.

The school converts an individual’s “life experience” into degrees after his or her skills, knowledge and competencies are analyzed using what it calls a “prior learning assessment.” An associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree assessment costs $499, according to Almeda’s website. A doctorate costs $1,495.

Almeda University in 2004 awarded an associate degree in childhood development to a 7-year-old dog after its owner filled out the assessment. The institution responded on its website by saying the New York man perjured himself to discredit the school.

‘Unfair’ to others

Board of trustees Vice President Dave Honey said Thomas shouldn’t have gotten the job if he didn’t earn a “legitimate degree” from an accredited institution.

“I think it’s unfair for the individuals who put in the time, the classes and the money to go to college,” he said.

Honey wondered if there were more qualified applicants competing for the job.

According to Stacy McAfee, assistant superintendent of human resources, Thomas’ position was posted to a job website on June 10, 2011, and taken down six days later. She said three of 14 applicants were interviewed for the job; Thomas was one of them.

“I can say that the district did look into the matter and per the requirements for the position, Mr. Thomas’ experience and training met the equivalent requirement in the job position posting,” McAfee said in an email.

But if the school district accepts questionable degrees, Honey said, it sets a dangerous precedent – other employees might buy degrees to earn higher salaries.

A second look

Even if district officials decide Thomas’ degree meets the job requirements, District Attorney Larry Morse II said “buying” a diploma is still a violation of the law.

Morse said his office was made aware of the issue when a Sheriff’s Department detective spoke to Chief Deputy District Attorney Harold Nutt a few months ago. Nutt told the detective that since the school district wasn’t concerned about it, the district attorney’s office wouldn’t file charges.

Merced County sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Rosenberg investigated the case but considered it closed after conversations with the DA’s office. No further action was taken by the department after an MUHSD human resources official told Rosenberg in January the district “accepted the degree” despite the fact that Almeda is unaccredited, according to the department’s report.

Morse said his office is going to take a second look at the case.

“We’ve received additional information and we’re going to look into it,” Morse said. “Our concern is not with what the school district is doing with its hiring; ours is whether a person has committed a crime in the course of vying for that job.”

Although such a case is “unusual” for Merced, Morse said, diploma mills cannot be tolerated because they devalue real education. “It diminishes the degrees and credentials of people who’ve worked really hard and spent lots of money getting an education,” he said.

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