A diploma mill claiming the identity and 125-year history of the University of Charleston is offering life experience degrees for a fraction of the cost it takes to earn one from the private four-year college.
For about $300, one can trade in past schooling and job experience for a Charleston State University associate degree, which can be mailed to any address with 10 verifying documents in as little as eight days. The school also sells bachelor, master and doctorate degrees for $350, $400 and $450, though students can receive a 20 percent discount through a “premium” scholarship.
For those with bare walls in their office, a premium package featuring a blender of all four degrees costs $1,300 — hundreds more for a transcript with good grades.
All this obtainable without ever setting foot on a college campus. Free shipping included.
If Charleston State University sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
Despite the school's claim to have a rich history in the Kanawha Valley dating back to its founding in 1888 when it was called Barboursville Seminary, Charleston State University does not exist.
In 1901, the school was not renamed Morris Harvey College “out of appreciation for a conspicuous benefactor,” according to the fictitious university's website. During the Great Depression, the school was not moved from Barboursville to Charleston “to exploit the bigger metropolitan zone.” And it wasn't later established on the banks of the Kanawha River because school officials “perceived the requirement for a bound together yard.”
That's the University of Charleston's history — minus the broken and confusing English — and school officials are shocked someone has stolen the school's identity.
“The reputation, history and mission of the university are sacred to us, and we take their unauthorized use by others very seriously,” said University of Charleston President Ed Welch.
“The University of Charleston is in no way affiliated with or connected to Charleston State University,” Welch went on to say. “We have a long, successful history of conferring high quality, properly accredited degrees, and we do not condone such fraudulent representations.”
In addition to copying the University of Charleston's history, Charleston State also lifted its mission statement. The school also uses photos of smiling students and professors from real college campuses in Raleigh, N.C., DuBoise, Pa., and Franklin, Mass., as well as one Presbyterian Sunday school room in Tempe, Ariz.
The weirdness surrounding the “19th ranked Top Life Experience Degree Provided University” doesn't stop there though.
The stately administrative building advertised on Charleston State's website is actually the famous Meadow Building at the University of Oxford in England.
Despite its alleged presence on multiple continents, Charleston State University does in fact have a physical location, at least that's what a representative speaking to the Daily Mail in a chat message on the school's website said.
According to someone named Matt Batson, who claims to work in the admission department, the school is located at 9200 University Boulevard in Charleston, S.C. A simple Google search of that address reveals that location actually is the home of Charleston Southern University, a private Baptist college with more than 3,000 students.
But prospective students needn't worry about physically attending classes because the school is geared toward serving up online degrees.
Online universities have become a vital part of higher education in America as many nontraditional students seek alternative schooling methods that better fit their budgets and schedules. With that has come the advent of diploma mills, which are online schools that award degrees based on life experience or even less. The schools are often unaccredited while some boldly claim full accreditation from equally fake governing bodies.
Charleston State claims to be certified by the Accrediting Commission of International Colleges and Universities, but that body doesn't exist nor is it recognized by any national accrediting council.
Diploma mills like Charleston State that offer flat-fee degrees are boosted by many seeking a hike in pay for receiving additional education. They use aggressive sales tactics like spam and pop-ups, and often pressure students who express interest to share their personal information.
The Federal Trade Commission, a national consumer protection agency, identifies diploma mills as schools that offer no studies, exams or interaction, all features pushed by Charleston State. The commission says the best way to identify a diploma mill is to research the institution and any accrediting body it claims to be associated with. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited postsecondary institutions and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation lists all valid accrediting bodies.
Not much else is known about Charleston State. When asked how many students attend the school, a representative declined to answer, saying the information could be found on the website. When asked for the admission office's phone number, he said that information could only be shared with enrolled students because of “spammers.”
After an extensive search of the website's domain information, the Daily Mail was not able to uncover the identity of its creator. The only lead found during a WHOIS query was that the website was created on July 12, 2014, is hosted by Namecheap, Inc., and that whoever registered the site opted to have identifying information guarded. A WHOIS query is a search of databases that store registered users of domain names, their IP addresses, emails and phone numbers. Users can pay an annual fee to have that information hidden from searches. Obtaining it requires a court order.
Upon discovering the diploma mill, the Daily Mail contacted state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. While he did not respond by press time Thursday, a spokeswoman said the office would not be able to confirm or deny if there was an investigation underway. She also did not indicate whether Morrisey's office was aware of Charleston State University.
While Morrisey's office would likely take the lead if any legal action is taken, Welch said the University of Charleston is considering all options as it chooses how to respond to the situation.
A spokeswoman for the state Higher Education Policy Commission also said its legal department will investigate Charleston State, though they would defer action to Morrisey.
She also confirmed that Charleston State is not authorized to grant degrees in West Virginia under legislative rulings that require the commission to approve what institutes may do so.
When asked if the commission has ever encountered a diploma mill like this in West Virginia, the spokeswoman said she asked several long-term staffers who indicated they have never seen anything like Charleston State University.