ANN ARBOR, MI—The University of Michigan has become the 17th institution of higher learning to be implicated in the checks-for-degrees scandal rocking American campuses, representatives from the Department of Justice reported Tuesday.
"We have strong evidence that the University of Michigan granted academic degrees to students in exchange for hefty payments, often totaling tens of thousands of dollars," Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey said. "In the process, thousands of graduates have emerged with degrees, but few or no skills applicable to everyday life. And many are as unprepared to enter the job market as they were when they first enrolled."
According to documents collected as a part of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation, some University of Michigan undergraduates attended classes fewer than three times a week. During these classes, students were asked to do little more than listen to lectures delivered by their professors.
Comey said that, while it seems apparent that the universities under investigation were conducting a monetary transaction, millions of degree-buyers believed that they had not bought, but "earned" their diplomas.
"The university is very careful to circumscribe the financial element of the transaction," Comey said. "The employees who conduct lectures are made to seem above the world of commerce. Students don't give their payments to the professors, nor to the departments from which they purchase their degrees. Rather, checks are mailed to the 'Office of the Bursar,' this 'bursar' being someone who's nearly impossible to track down."
Besides attending classes, students read materials relating to their lectures, write the occasional paper, and participate in testing, Comey said. Although the content of many courses was often thought-provoking, what alarmed investigators was the subject matter's "intractably abstract nature."
"A course in Chaucer can be a fascinating examination of medieval mores and the evolution of the English language," Comey said. "Such knowledge, however, has little application in larger society. Students can graduate with majors in creative writing, Latin, women's studies, and history, yet still not know how to fix a sink, sew on a button, or even properly feed themselves.Virtually the only opportunity graduates have to apply their arcane knowledge takes place during discussions over coffee with their peers, or attempts to impress members of the opposite sex at parties."
In addition to their twice-annual tuition payments, University of Michigan students pay hundreds of dollars in ancillary fees.
"Students are bilked out of registration fees, housing fees, and lab fees," Comey said. "And the university has all sorts of tricks to draw the money out, such as denying students access to library materials or refusing them copies of their transcripts."
Many students find that the only way to get a return on their investment is to continue their studies at the post-graduate level, resulting in even more money for the college.
"Some graduate-degree-earners have been known to find work in their fields, but many end up teaching in the very schools that issue these degrees of questionable value," Comey said. "In this way, the grift sustains itself."
Comey said citizens have a right to be concerned.
"Since so many students purchase their degrees using government-backed student-loan programs, taxpayers are supporting this," Comey said. "Also, because many employers require these bachelor's degrees, even if irrelevant to the actual work, the business sector has to own up to some collusion in the matter."
One alleged victim of the checks-for-degrees scandal is 25-year-old Michael Trumbull, who purchased an art-history degree from the University of Michigan, making his first payment in January 2002. Trumbull currently works the front desk of a Lansing Comfort Inn.
"Not once has a customer asked me about the innovations of Edouard Manet, or whether politics and aesthetics make good bedfellows," Trumbull said. "They're much more likely to ask me to bring them a plunger or give them a wake-up call."
Trumbull, who owes more than $40,000 in student loans, added that he must use a calculator to perform even simple math.