A Brief Course in Education Verifications

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Ronald Zarrella was CEO of Bausch & Lomb from 2001-2008. On his resume, Mr. Zarrella stated that he had earned an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University. It was found that while he did, in fact, attend the program, he did not graduate. His previous employers had never checked.

Clearly, hindsight is 20/20 – even if it takes a while to come into focus.

George O’Leary, head football coach at Notre Dame, held his job only five days. That’s when his claim to have earned a master’s degree in education from “NYU-Stony Brook University” was examined. NYU and Stony Brook are two separate schools. It was revealed that he took two courses at SUNY Stony Brook but didn’t graduate. He also had claimed to have earned three letters in football at the University of New Hampshire. He never even played in a game.

Aaaaand Notre Dame for the sack. But wait, there’s more!

  • Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was found to have made up degrees from Union College and Albany Medical College. Neither school had records indicating her attendance. She also claimed a degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, 28 years after she had been hired by MIT, she admitted that she never received any degree from any college. MIT’s chancellor stated, “In the future we will take a big lesson from this experience.”
  • Kenneth Lonchar, EVP of Veritas Software claimed to have received an accounting degree from Arizona State University and an MBA from Stanford. It was found he had neither. When that was uncovered, the company’s stock fell 16%.
  • A former CEO of RadioShack, a head of InterContinental Hotels Group, president of Microsemi Corporation, and Chairman of Pacific Century CyberWorks also were found to have lied about their schooling.

Pants on Fire

You’d think such visible, high-profile executives would have been more forthcoming about their education. Perhaps like many job candidates, they thought no one would bother checking the schools they attended – or claimed to have attended – years ago.

Obviously they were wrong.

Lying on resumes isn’t relegated just to the higher-ups. In fact, more than half (56%) of over 2,000 hiring managers have caught a lie on a resume, according to a recent survey from CareerBuilder.

Another study of hiring managers revealed that the majority (69%) of them said that if they caught the candidate lying about something, they would not hire the candidate.

According to HireRight’s 2016 Annual Benchmark Report, which polled 3,459 HR professionals worldwide, 88% of recruiters surveyed found a lie or misrepresentation on resumes and/or job applications. Eighty-four percent stated that screening has uncovered issues that would not have been caught otherwise.

“Education” seems to be a popular place in a resume to fudge the truth. The New Norms @Work survey, which polled 15,075 full-time workers between 18 and 66 years of age in 19 countries revealed that 68% of respondents who completed some high school but didn’t earn a diploma admitted to lying on a resume.

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm, says that not having a diploma is one of the things many applicants are most ashamed about.

Recent college grads may raise their grade point averages (GPA) or claim honors they didn’t receive, says Todd Bermont, author of 10 Insider Secrets to a Winning Job Search.

Doing the Homework, Overcoming Challenges

Since it’s a very important consideration for many jobs, background check services including HireRight with a meticulous approach to verification dedicate specific resource to validating educational reference stated on resumes. And as simple as verifying a school record may seem, it is not necessarily a quick or easy task.

For starters, many educational institutions do not respond directly to requests for information. Rather, they subscribe to the National Student Clearinghouse, the largest provider of electronic student record exchanges and postsecondary transcript ordering services in the U.S. For a fee, the Clearinghouse verifies enrollment and graduation information for students of most public and private U.S. institutions. Institutions whose degrees are verified through the Clearinghouse protects against bogus information supplied by “diploma mills” (see below).

Contacting schools directly, when possible, presents significant challenges. Services such as HireRight may attempt to communicate with an educational institution using phone calls, emails, faxes and standard mail. But if contact is attempted when the school is closed for vacations or holidays, the process may be significantly delayed.

Some schools have restrictions that prohibit anyone but the student from accessing records. Names may be confused, causing inaccuracies. GPA may not be provided. Once a degree has been awarded, it may take months before it’s added to a student’s records.

Also, schools may have been permanently closed, and records misplaced or lost.

An employer may request to see an actual diploma which, having raised seals, are difficult (but not impossible) to copy. If the diploma must come from an educational institution, turnaround time may increase substantially.

If actual transcripts are required to verify attendance, graduation, courses taken, and GPAs, this may also impact turnaround time. The process requires that the former student complete a request form and may also need to pay a fee.

If a job applicant has attended schools in other countries, problems may be exacerbated. Every country and institution therein may subscribe to unique policies regarding divulging school transcripts or other information. In spite of best efforts, a response for information may take weeks or even months.

Diploma Mills

You can buy almost anything these days, if you have the inclination and enough money. That includes a college degree. Ads claiming, “Get a degree online!” are ubiquitous. The phony “schools” that offer a certificate for money are commonly referred to as “diploma mills” for the volume of fake degrees they churn out. For as little as $400, the customer gets the piece of paper without having to having to actually dedicate the time and effort for the education. The perpetrators loosely toss around terms including “licensing” and “accreditation” which are commonly misunderstood. Yet The United States has no federal requirement that a college be accredited by a recognized agency! And since most jobs today now demand a college degree so – particularly since a college education now costs a fortune – it’s not hard to understand how diploma mills and for-profit “universities” have flourished. Fortunately, as we’ve seen recently, the courts are scrutinizing these scams and issuing steep fines for such corruption.

In an era of remote education, it may be difficult to separate a legitimate educational institution from a fraud. The FTC offers a website that offers a wealth of information to help individuals recognize education scams at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0206-college-degree-scams

How easy is it to get a diploma? As we wrote previously, a cat named Colby Nolan was awarded an executive MBA from a “university” in Plano, Texas. This so-called school awarded Colby the cat with an official-looking diploma including the signatures of the university’s President and Dean.

Colby “earned” his degree with just a few clicks of, ironically, a mouse.

Here Endeth the Lesson

As we’ve seen, it’s best to verify all elements of a resume and job application – including those of newly-hired C-level executives. Since many candidates have assumed that a prospective employer may not bother verifying his or her educational background, he or she may exaggerate or provide fabrications in this area. Demonstrating due diligence by directing a background check company to thoroughly validate job candidates’ education references will keep an employer at the head of the class.

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Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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