HOUSTON—What if we told you that your family dog could graduate from school? Not obedience school, but a program that awards high school diplomas. Sound incredible?
It’s what the I-Team discovered can happen at some private schools that critics say are really diploma mills. And a Texas law is actually helping these businesses thrive.
Just ask 20-year-old Brooke Hire.
“I was crying, I cried I was so proud,” she said after receiving her diploma from Parkview Baptist School.
“I was the third person in my whole entire family to ever get my high school diploma,” Hire said.
With it, she thought she could fulfill her dream of joining the Navy. But then, her recruiter dropped a bomb.
“It was worth absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing,” Hire said.
The Navy did not accept Parkview Baptist’s diploma. It’s a school that’s located in an office building on the Southwest Freeway—a school that Hire said didn’t seem to care about her homework.
I-Team: “Did (the owner) read it?”
I-Team: “Did he grade it?”
I-Team: “Did he …”
Hire: “Didn’t even skim it.”
But Hire said the school’s owner did take her money, almost $600, all for what she now describes as a worthless piece of paper and a dream down the drain.
“It was a waste of time and a waste of money,” Hire said.
And it’s big money when you look at the big picture. Some of these schools claim to have more than 80,000 graduates in the past few years, all by promising a quick, easy, pain-free education. So how do they get away with it?
“These people are deceivers. I think it’s a travesty,” said Tim Lambert of the Texas Home School Coalition.
Lambert said they’re hiding under a Texas law he helped to write as an advocate for home schooling. It says public colleges and universities cannot discriminate against home-school students. But Lambert said when these outfits call themselves home schools—they have no business doing so.
“They’re not providing instruction,” Lambert said.
“They’re giving credit, and for a fee, printing out a diploma -- that ought to be a definition of a diploma mill,” he said.
One school under question: the Marque Learning Center in East Houston, where we did some “undercover shopping” with our hidden cameras in tow.
Marque Student Counselor: “Right now we have a special, it’s $99, that’s all you have to pay.”
That’s right, tuition is half price. And the coursework?
Marque Student Counselor: “It’s very simple, it’s just common sense.”
Just whizz right through an easy take-home test and soon, you too can have that coveted sheepskin. But you’d better hurry to get in on “the savings.”
Marque Student Counselor: “This Saturday it’s going to end, it might go up to like $175, $150 or even $200.”
So what does home-school advocate Tim Lambert think?
“I think what you’ve got is these guys basically saying, ‘we don’t care who you are, as long as your credit card payment clears, then we’ll send you the diploma.’”
In fact, some so-called home schools, like Lincoln Academy on the East Freeway, may never see their students, because it’s all online. So the I-Team decided to do a test of its own and signed up Molly, our photographer’s basset hound.
And what was Lincoln’s “test” like? Doggone laughable at times, with questions like “a triangle has how many sides?” or “the President lives in the White House, true or false?”
In a couple of hours, with our help, Molly passed. After a $300 payment and a few days later, her diploma and official transcript arrived. Lincoln Academy was even nice enough to e-mail:
“Dear Molly, You have truly reached a new milestone in your educational career... sit back and enjoy your new life of being a high school graduate from Lincoln Academy.”
So we had some questions for Nancy Lubbat, whose family runs Lincoln Academy.
I-Team: “Can I ask you about Lincoln Academy real quick?
Lubbat: “I don’t have anything to say to you.”
I-Team: “Do you know who you’re awarding diplomas to? A dog, ma’am. What do you have to say to that?”
If it all sounds crazy, it’s driving some college admissions officials bonkers and putting them in a tough spot.
“Our hands are tied,” said Sam Houston State University Director of Admissions Trevor Thorn. “I mean the law says you treat this student just like you would from a public institution, so we’re really handcuffed by this saying ‘you have to take this student.’”
Meantime, the I-Team tried to talk to the other business owners of these so-called home high schools. At Parkview Baptist, Lilton Chesson was out of the office but did tell us by phone:
“We’re not a diploma mill, we’re not a scam…you’re attacking, you’re looking for negative information, good bye sir.”
And at Marque Learning Center, another student counselor, Ricky Guerry, told us they’re all about helping the community.
I-Team: “Are you a diploma mill?”
Guerra: “No sir, we are not.”
And he didn’t pass up the chance to keep pushing that sale.
Guerra: “Don’t forget to mention we have a $99 special going on right now.”
I-Team: “You have a special?”
Guerra: “Yes sir.”
I-Team: “Do you hear how this sounds, you have a $99 special.”
Guerra: “It’s a general special, yes sir.”
I-Team: “It’s like a midnight madness or Black Friday sale, we’re talking about diplomas here.”
Guerra: “No, no, no, call it what you want, it’s a free country.”
Again, these schools all are quick to say that their diplomas, under Texas Education law, are accepted at any state college or university.
But here’s the kicker. For many community colleges, you don’t need a diploma to get in, they are open admission schools and you can enroll by taking a placement test. As for other colleges and universities, they won’t let you in on a diploma alone. They require SAT or ACT scores and additional testing as well.