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Who Needs College? We'll Sell You a Diploma!

By Lisa Neal / January 2006

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In December 2005, two years after the US Congress passed an anti-spam law, the CAN-SPAM Act, the US Federal Trade Commission reported that fewer unsolicited email messages are reaching computer users. While I believe I receive much less pornography than before, it seems there is no shortage of advertisements for pharmaceuticals and unaccredited university degrees reaching my inbox. I delete the former, but collect and analyze the latter. Although the creative misspellings and enticing offers are fascinating in themselves, my goal has been to figure out how best to promote authentic, accredited programs, whether through email, banner ads, search engines, or some other medium.

After receiving a paltry amount of entertaining degree-pitches over the winter, spring, and summer of 2005, things picked up in the fall. I received seven invitations in September, 23 in October, 13 in November, and 21 in December. And ten more have come in the first week of January 2006. This does not correlate with any economic indicator I know. Perhaps the December/early-January rush relates to advertisers' expectations regarding New Year's resolutions for higher-paying jobs? But by that logic, I'd have expected an onslaught in June and late summer to coincide with graduation and the start of the academic year.

Ostensibly, these emails are from people with plausible names such as Winfred Malone and Lionel Kane. A few of the names sound more like senders of pornography than academic materials, and many are from "Your Degree," "College Connection," "Registrar," and the like.

The subject lines vary from the nonsensical "alkaliferous accuracy" and misleading "dose" to the challenging "How much more would you earn?" My personal favorite is the charmingly misspelled "Get your diplomar in 2 weeks make more mondey next month!" although I also maintain a fondness for the direct approach of "Obtain a College Diploma, fast and easy."

Typically, these messages are spelled correctly (in marked contrast to pharmaceutical spam), which is apropos for degree-granting institutions, accredited or not. In general, they offer a promise of obtaining "a prosperous future, money-earning power, and the prestige that comes with the degree you have always dreamed of." They provide a phone number and the promise of confidentiality, and they most thoughtfully mention that the universities are non-accredited. Few of the pitches I receive offer a URL, which is surprising—I would assume these emails would be for non-accredited online degree programs. But how different are these emails from the advertisements formerly decorating matchbook covers and comic books?

While I assume most people just delete these emails or let their filters capture them, I wonder how many people are enticed by a promise of earning "the admiration of all." When I am told I've "been personally recommended for a new career of your choice with our program" I don't take it any more seriously than the "next hot stock-picks" I receive. I presume some people must respond, or these emails would stop eventually.

I don't recommend spam as a means to get your message out, but maybe there are lessons here that can be applied to other, more effective forms of communication. Anything that puts distance between legitimate offerings and dreaded diploma-mill spam is probably a good idea. Accredited degree programs should certainly avoid mentioning salary potential upfront, as well as time-based pitches such as "a degree in 2 weeks," or, as most PhDs know, "in only 4 years." Name recognition is the best way to achieve credibility—few of the emails I receive even mention a specific institution. Additionally, advertisements should emphasize that the program is "fully accredited" and go so far as to actually mention the accrediting agency. Further, while I haven't seen this done often, links to legitimate resources for locating programs, such as US News and World Report evaluations and Peterson's Guide, would only enhance credibility.


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