COLUMBIA — The Missouri Senate is weighing a bill to stop the use of false diplomas, a million-dollar industry that has touched MU and other campuses around the state, along with surrounding communities.
State Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal to use or try to use a false diploma for any purpose.
It would make this type of fraud illegal for the first time in Missouri.
“A lot of things that we do are immoral but not exactly illegal,” said Todd Scott, a member of Bartle’s legislative staff.
Zora Aubuchon, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Higher Education, said the law could be used as a tool to prosecute and assign consequences for fraudulent use of diplomas.
Currently, it is difficult to fit the offense into a category, such as fraud, making it nearly impossible to convict anyone, she said. If the bill is passed, falsifying a diploma would be a class C misdemeanor.
The bill is now before the state Senate, and Bartle’s office foresees no problem with its passage.
“We think it deserves broad bipartisan support,” said Kathy Love, public information officer for the state Higher Education Department. “It is kind of a no-brainer. People work very hard to get their college credentials, and it devalues honest people’s efforts.”
Aubuchon also said the problem is far larger than people realize.
“Some estimates say that the sale of fake degrees exceeded $200 million in 2001 and could now be a billion-dollar industry with as many as a million customers,” Aubuchon said.
The consumers of these “diploma mills” might be closer to home than one would think.
Aubuchon said people are using false diplomas in all career paths, but also in sensitive jobs, such as education and medicine.
“It poses a danger to society,” Love said. “It threatens the fabric of having qualified people in the professions we have come to expect.”
Another challenge is tracking those who have lied about their credentials.
“Most of the people who are using phony diplomas probably have not been detected,” Aubuchon said.
It is only when organizations attempt to confirm the information that the universities become aware their credentials are being used. For those familiar with the system, such as MU registrar Brenda Selman, it is easy to notice the differences.
“Businesses or other schools send them to us when they are attempting to verify an individual’s degree, and the diploma is what the individual has presented to them as proof of graduation,” she said.
“Usually, they look significantly different than our diplomas, such as being printed in a landscape format when ours are vertical.”
The state Higher Education Department reports that Lindenwood University, St. Charles Community College, Saint Louis University and MU have documented cases of citizens attempting to use a college diploma erroneously. The department brought the issue to Bartle’s attention, and they have been working on the bill since late last year.
This bill, numbered SB182, was heard in the Senate Education Committee and is now being added into a larger crime bill, which is currently under discussion. The wider bill includes a variety of offenses, such as sex offenses and livestock theft, among others.
Missouri would not be the first state with a fake diploma law. Other states, including Illinois, Maine, North Dakota and Texas, have already outlawed fake diplomas.
“We want to send a signal statewide that using a phony diploma is not tolerated in Missouri,” Aubuchon said.