You probably get emails from them every day: Internet sites that call themselves universities offering college degrees. They're called diploma mills, and many of them are nothing more than a post office box.
But then there's Hamilton University, not to be confused with the legitimate Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
When Correspondent Vicki Mabrey first reported on this story last fall, Hamilton claimed to be a legitimate school offering a very non-traditional education. There are a lot of Hamilton graduates, including the CEO of a major corporation, and even a former manager from the Department of Homeland Security.
Hamilton's Web site looks official. There's the university seal, a list of degree requirements and an address. So 60 Minutes Wednesday decided to visit the campus.
Hamilton University is located in Evanston, Wyo., an old railroad town that calls itself the hub of western hospitality. Just off the main road is Hamilton's campus.
On the day 60 Minutes Wednesday visited, the campus was empty. There were only two cars in the parking lot, and no sign of faculty or students. We spotted one employee and asked for a campus tour. The employee told us to wait outside, then locked the door and called police.
We left, but not before noticing that Hamilton doesn't look like a typical university. It looks more like an old motel, which is exactly what it was.
"The campus doesn't exist," says Dawn Curtis, who along with Tracy Robirds, once did clerical work for Hamilton University. She says they were two-thirds of the entire staff, and they left after realizing the school wasn't quite as advertised.
"We never saw any faculty advisers at all. We never saw faculty at all, ever," says Curtis. "There aren't any teachers."
When did she start to figure out that Hamilton Campus wasn't a legitimate college? "When I started reading some of the paperwork that started coming back from the students," says Curtis. "And I started seeing that the turnaround between receiving the papers and the graded papers, the promise, and the degrees going out was very fast – pretty much as soon as the checks cleared."
How do you get a degree from Hamilton? You start by filling out a form on a site that claims to be an independent referral service. But it really was set up to funnel business to Hamilton. You'll then be offered dozens of degrees. If you're accepted, and chances are good you will be, it can take as little as a week or two to get a diploma. Your main assignments are to write a short paper and a big check.
How were some of the papers? Were they pretty good? "Probably 80 percent of them. It's not quality work," says Curtis. "Some of them actually really put a lot of work into this, really put a lot of work into their dissertation. I mean, seriously a lot of work. I feel sorry for those people, because they thought this was the real deal."
Laura Callahan says she thought Hamilton was real, just one of many of legitimate schools that offer courses and degrees through the Internet.
"I wanted to finish college. It was a completely personal goal of mine," says Callahan. "All through my professional career, there was never a job requirement that required me to have an educational degree."
The former Homeland Security executive says she couldn't afford the time or the money for a traditional school, so she checked the Internet for an online university: "Hamilton is advertising themselves as being a four-year school, and even had advanced degrees in computer information systems through their distance learning. Sounded like a good match."
Hamilton's Web site claims the school is accredited, so Callahan says she thought it was a safe bet. She also thought she knew her way around a campus, even if it was a cyber-campus. She'd taken dozens of correspondence and distance learning courses, enough to earn a junior college degree.
All those credits and her "life experience," over 15 years with the government working with computers, qualified her, according to Hamilton, to get her bachelor's and master's degrees. All she needed was to take a 10-question ethics quiz and write a 2,000-word thesis, which amounts to just four pages.
Did that send a red flag? "To me, it wasn't a matter of meeting the minimum," says Callahan. "To me, it was a matter of satisfying my own personal sense of, 'Did I do it, the best job I could?'"
With degrees in hand, Callahan wanted more, and Hamilton was happy to oblige. She wrote a lengthy dissertation and sent another check, and $7,000 later, she was Dr. Laura Callahan, Ph.D.
Did she feel like she was just buying a degree? "I would feel that way if I didn't do the work, if I didn't transfer in all the other prior learning experiences, and if I didn't put in an honest effort into the papers and the work that I did with Hamilton," says Callahan.
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