The institution where a high-ranking Education department administrator got his PhD appears to be part of a broader trend of bogus degree production, says an Ontario scholar.
Several studies show unaccredited graduate degrees are flourishing in North America, devaluing the hard work of grad students and pointing to a process of self-deception and victimization of the recipients.
Albert Trask, the Yukon’s assistant deputy minister of public schools, earned his “doctorate” in biblical studies from Newburgh Theological Seminary, an online learning institution based in an Indiana suburb.
The bible college is unaccredited in the U.S. by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the federal Department of Education as well as the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.
Trask, on top of signing his name “Dr.” on department correspondence, also chairs the teacher certification board, responsible for verifying new teachers’ academic credentials.
After weeks of silence, both Trask and Education deputy minister Valerie Royle affirmed their faith in the integrity of the PhD and the school it came from — “One of America’s Best Seminary Bible Colleges!” according to its website.
Mark Sholdice, a doctoral candidate at the University of Guelph in Ontario, noted the red flags flapping at Newburgh and comparable institutions.
“Degree mills are easy to spot: low fees, no supervision, little required in the way of work, no accreditation from the major organizations,” he said in an email.
“The fact that the degree would only take 50 hours is scandalous.”
The biblical studies stream at the college demands 50 credit-hours and a succession of book reports from its students. It requires little to no original research, academic supervision or peer-recognized standards of quality or publication — all integral to an authentic PhD program, Sholdice noted.
On its website, Newburgh encourages students to complete their PhD, which costs $2,595 plus the price of six textbooks, in less than two years.
Sholdice, a history student who has spent more than four years working toward his PhD, stressed the damage such questionable qualifications can inflict.
“It’s very important that we prevent these fraudulent degrees from being accepted or recognized because they have absolutely no value. If someone is hired or promoted on the basis of such a degree, it undermines the organization employing them, and the educational system in general,” he said.
Identifying diploma mills is essential “to uphold our standards for hard work and quality,” he added.
An exposé by a retired FBI agent and a distance education expert found that roughly 50,000 dubious PhDs are purchased annually in the U.S., compared to 40,000 to 45,000 valid doctorates earned after years of study.
“In other words, more than half of all people claiming a new PhD have a fake degree,” write Allen Ezell and John Bear in their 2012 book, Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas.
Those spurious credentials included both counterfeit degrees — akin to a forged driver’s licence — and degrees from unaccredited institutions. These degrees “can require some academic work but significantly less than comparable, legitimate accredited programs,” according a 2008 article in the Journal of Economic Issues, “An Introduction to the Economics of Fake Degrees.”
The authors note that “bogus universities” are often vouched for by equally specious accreditation agencies. More than 200 “accreditation mills” were in production as of 2004, according to the study.
Newburgh claims accreditation via the California-based Transworld Accrediting Commission International, which the deputy minister pointed out. Like Newburgh, that agency is unrecognized by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Newburgh states on its website that it “will continue to shy away from any kind of accreditation that might weaken our ability to train men and women to be effective servants of Christ in their church and place of ministry service.
“The main question to be asked when considering a school is ‘Is this the school that will please God?’ If it pleases God, then it doesn’t matter who is displeased.”
Keith Wilhite, a professor at Newburgh who purchased his PhD there, denied any hint of deception or illegitimacy at the school.
“There’s about 50 certification groups out there and we’ve chosen the one that we think is the best for us,” he told the Star in an interview.
He said the bible college currently enrolls about 3,500 students.
Sholdice lays some of the blame for the ongoing North American degree scam at the doors of such online schools, rather than their students.
“I don’t see it just as people committing fraud or taking advantage of the situation,” he said in a phone interview. “I think there’s a lot of self-deception going on.
“I think it’s that they’re being victimized by institutions exploiting this yearning for recognition.
“It makes you realize how much of our society is built on reputation — reputation, rank, accreditation. You realize how many assumptions we make of each other based on the titles we take.”