July 20, 2008 in Opinion

Scarecrow and the diploma mills

Rebecca Nappi

In the movie “The Wizard of Oz” the Wizard lets Scarecrow in on a little secret about smart people. “They have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitartus Committiartum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of ThD – Doctor of Thinkology.”

Scarecrow got his degree from a diploma mill, although not the one based in Spokane. Dixie Ellen Randock, the mastermind behind that operation, was recently sentenced to three years in federal prison for selling phony degrees to nearly 10,000 buyers in the United States and 130 other countries.

Many of those who bought fake degrees from Randock’s diploma mill did it with fraud in mind. They desired more money and better promotions. Some might be terrorists hoping to get to this country with bogus degrees. But some, I’m sure, are Scarecrows.

Scarecrow was smart but couldn’t believe it. He had nothing objective to prove it, not even a brain. He doubted himself and apologized relentlessly. His straw stuffing fell out on occasion, and he stuffed it back in with that shame people feel when their deepest insecurity is revealed to the world.

Did some men and women buy fake diplomas from the Spokane-based mill because it’s hard to be a Scarecrow in a culture that measures worth by how educated you are? You bet.

Randock, 58, does not sound like an innocent Scarecrow. Too calculating. According to court documents, she dropped out of school at 16 to work. She built a successful real-estate broker business and then, in 1999, she focused her attention on a Spokane version of Universitartus Committiartum. She was clever enough to never sign her name on the fraudulent degrees. She enlisted family and friends to help her. She raked in more than $7 million.

In short, she possessed all the skills it takes to earn a doctoral degree: focused goals, perseverance, critical thinking and teamwork. And if she had started on a doctorate in 1999, she’d have it by now. She wouldn’t be making $7 million, but she wouldn’t be headed to prison, either.

Many successful people – who, unlike Randock, achieved that success legitimately – lack degrees. In the United States, only 25 percent of people over age 25 have bachelor’s degrees, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. And less than 10 percent have advanced degrees.

In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed many people who didn’t go to college. People who build things, fix things, run things – people doing great work in this world. Yet many apologized for their lack of college and felt they had to explain. Some lacked the financial resources. Others were so scarred by formal education that they experienced panic attacks when they entered school buildings. Others blossomed in jobs that didn’t require degrees. Some joked that they graduated from the School of Hard Knocks.

Men and women who bought fake degrees from Randock’s mill must accept whatever legal or workplace sanctions come their way. But I believe our culture of credentials colludes in diploma mills, and that’s the source of my sympathy for the Scarecrows in that diploma-buying bunch. They didn’t understand that a college degree alone doesn’t guarantee that a person is smart, caring or wise.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wizard turns out to be the doofus. Scarecrow possesses a lot of common sense; he evolves into the group’s leader. And in the end, Dorothy misses him most.

Rebecca Nappi is a member of The Spokesman-Review editorial board. She can be reached at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.

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