updated 5/11/2004 10:38:45 AM ET 2004-05-11T14:38:45

At least 28 senior-level federal employees in eight agencies have bogus college degrees, including three managers at the office that oversees nuclear weapons safety, congressional investigators have found.

The problem is likely even bigger, mainly because the government has no uniform way to check whether employees' alma maters are "diploma mills" that require little, if any, academic work, the General Accounting Office reported.

The findings by the investigative arm of Congress were to be presented to a Senate committee Tuesday.

An earlier GAO report revealed how easy it is to buy a degree from a diploma mill; this one shows high-level federal workers securing such degrees at taxpayer expense. The tally was $169,471 at just two of the schools.

The colleges in question often use names similar to those of accredited schools and offer degrees largely on a person's "life experience." Some simply sell degrees for a flat fee.

Among those with bogus degrees in the GAO review were three workers with emergency operations roles and security clearances at the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Department of Energy.

One of those workers paid $5,000 for a master's degree from LaSalle University, an unaccredited school, the report said. He attended no classes, took no tests and told the GAO his degree was "a joke."

Under law, the federal government may only pay tuition for academic degree training at schools sanctioned by a recognized accrediting body.

In contacting representatives of three diploma mills, an undercover GAO investigator found they would not permit enrolling in individual courses. Yet they were willing to change their billing practices to receive federal money, dividing the flat fee they charged by the number of courses a student needed to appear as if a per-course fee was charged.

The number of bogus degrees and the amount of tax dollars spent on them are likely understated across the government because of incomplete records and verifications, the GAO said.

Three unaccredited schools — Pacific Western University, California Coast University and Kennedy-Western University — provided data showing that 463 of their students were federal employees. Most of those listed were in the Department of Defense. The report did not name employees.

The investigation took place from July 2003 through February.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee planned hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on diploma mills and the taxpayer's role in subsidizing them.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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