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Education bill also targets diploma mills

The U.S. House of Representatives this week passed a higher-education reauthorization bill that includes language to crack down on so-called diploma mills that sell fraudulent degrees and transcripts.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act includes portions of another anti-diploma mill bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat.

Her legislation was drafted, in part, in response to a major diploma mill based in Spokane that sold 6,000 university degrees worldwide. Many of those phony degrees were sold to individuals in Saudi Arabia who used them to get enhanced immigration status – becoming an issue of concern for U.S. Homeland Security officials tracking suspected terrorists.

A federal task force used federal wire and mail fraud statutes to eventually get indictments against eight defendants accused of operating the Spokane-based diploma mill. Four defendants have pleaded guilty and four others are set to stand trial in June in U.S. District Court in Spokane.

The new legislation, House Resolution 4137, passed Thursday on a vote of 354 to 58.

Although she didn’t sign on as one of several co-sponsors, Eastern Washington U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers voted for HR 4137.

“This legislation is an important first step toward ensuring that every college degree reflects the high quality of our higher education system,” McCollum said in a prepared statement.

Fake diplomas, she said, “undermine that quality, and they have been used to carry out deceptions and crimes that are absolutely repugnant.”

Provisions of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act will instruct the U.S. Department of Education to create a list of accredited institutions and valid accreditation associations for immigration and federal employment and hiring purposes.

The legislation also will establish a task force of higher education and law enforcement experts to develop a “strategic diploma integrity protection plan,” and encourage the state to take similar steps.

The legislation also will give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to crack down on diploma mills.

A Senate companion bill passed last year. Now, the House and Senate versions will go to conference committee to reconcile differences.