Over the past twenty-plus years, I have been involved in the “paranormal community,” a large group of enthusiasts with varying levels of belief and disbelief, all looking into claims of ghosts, UFOs, monsters, and more. I’ve come across many gimmicks that attempted to place one person (or group) above the rest, singling them out as “experts,” “elite,” or “more serious” (or qualified) than the average paranormal investigator. One such gimmick I often encounter comes in the form of diploma mill “degrees” for various paranormal studies. I’ve been wanting to take a closer look at this topic, and an encounter at a recent paranormal conference kicked this article into gear.
Earning a real diploma, such as from a high school, signifies one has completed several required classes and demonstrated basic proficiency in topics such as math, English, Social Studies, science, etc. This is typically completed over a period of four years (Lee 2014). After high school, academic diplomas and certificate programs taken by themselves are like an associate’s degree program. However, they do not take as long, because general education courses are not required (Study.com 2019).
Certifications are achieved by being independently verified of a certain level of expertise and demonstrating one is worthy to receive a particular designation (GoCertify 2018). Back in my auto mechanic days, for example, I was an ASE certified technician; meaning that I demonstrated a level of expertise that met the standards of the National Institute for Automotive Excellence, a recognized independent non-profit organization that has been certifying automotive technicians since 1972 (ASE 2018). Certification can come from manufacturers and businesses, as well as institutions of higher learning.
Earning an academic degree requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and of course a lot of money. The average tuition (and fees) for the 2018–2019 academic year ranged from $3,660 per year (public, two-year associate’s) to $44,020 per year (private, doctoral), according to the Annual Survey of Colleges (College Board 2019). It takes between two and nine years as a full-time student to achieve the desired degree, depending on whether you’re going for an undergraduate (associate’s or bachelor’s) or an advanced degree (master’s or doctoral).
However, not everyone is willing to put in the time and money to achieve these honors. Enter the online diploma mills that offer certifications, diplomas, and degrees at much lower prices that appeal to the general public. Unfortunately, these “courses” are generally worthless; often the materials are sent to the consumer along with the completion certificates, so the consumer can fill in their certificate themselves when they themselves decide they’ve passed the course. There are countless websites and individuals that sell certifications (diplomas and degrees) that are not accredited by any recognized accrediting agencies or backed by legitimate institutions. In many cases, the people offering the courses are not qualified to instruct on the subject matter, lacking the proper credentials that would make them competent instructors.
Given the popular hobby of ghost hunting and the dozens of paranormal shows on TV, I wasn’t surprised to find diploma mills, such as the now-defunct Flamel college, which had offered several courses in “paranormal studies” at $45 each. There were five courses that included certifications in Cryptozoology, UFO Investigator, EVP-ITC Specialist, Paranormal Investigator, and Parapsychologist. I was able to locate a gentleman that purchased the complete package, and he described how much time he spent on his “studies”: about a week. Yes, in one week he read through all the course materials and gave himself all five certifications (Hal 2016). This is not demonstrating any expertise or showing that one has earned a title; it means someone simply overpaid someone else to send a certificate they could likely have picked up at any dollar store across the country. Sadly, I’ve seen these types of certificates being used by paranormal enthusiasts to elicit respect and exude authority over others in the community (more on this below). Diploma mills do not offer higher education but are instead academic snake oil.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act defines a diploma mill as an entity that “offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training; and (ii) requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and (B) lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education … by the Secretary pursuant to subpart 2 of part H of title IV; or (ii) a Federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations” (USDE 2009). Diploma mills are not accredited by any recognized accrediting agencies or state approval agencies, such as the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (USDE 2019).
It’s not just diploma mills that offer these bogus courses; there have been quite a few participants in the paranormal community (and many others) that have offered various classes (for a considerable fee) to grant you non-accredited and meaningless titles such as “certified paranormal investigator” or “parapsychologist.” My friend and colleague Rob Lea has addressed these types of certifications and diplomas several times on his blog, The Null Hypothesis. In 2015, Lea investigated an “accredited diploma in ‘Applied Paranormal Research’” from a group called HD Paranormal. Lea found that the diploma was not accredited, nor had any educational value (Lea 2015) yet cost £59.00 (about $65 USD). In 2018, Lea looked into “honorary” degrees in Paranormal Studies being offered by a Bishop James Long, of the United States Old Catholic Church. The prices for these ranged between $50 (Basic) up to $195 for an “Honorary Doctorate” (Long 2019). Each “course” covered the same topics (Demonology, Paranormal Studies, Angelology, and Paranormal Genealogy) yet charged different prices depending on which “honorary” title you desired. I’m quite certain Long doesn’t understand what the term honorary means, nor did I see any credentials that qualified him to teach such courses.
Another offer of paranormal certification comes from Patti Starr, a self-proclaimed “world renowned” paranormal investigator, author, and tour guide for two ghost walks. Starr offers a three-hour retreat “that comes with a full certification of completion” at the cost of $65 (Starr 2019). There was no course description, but one of the two testimonials on the website states: “The course covers all basic knowledge, introductory theories, fundamental equipment and their usage, pieces of past evidence—photo and EVP audio, as well as a practical session with students on a mini ghost hunt.” Although anyone is free to charge a fee for hosting an event, the “certification” means nothing; the host mentions nothing in her extensive bio that would indicate an expertise in any of the areas associated with investigating paranormal (extraordinary) claims. Furthermore, there is no indication (via lack of class description) the information provided by the class is more than one would get via an a few minutes on Google.
There have also been quite a few times when individuals have presented diploma mill style certifications as legitimate credentials, expecting to receive equal respect as those who actually put in the long years of hard work and expensive tuitions associated with advanced education.
One individual repeatedly brought to my attention during this project was Brian Cano, one of the stars of the now-defunct television series Haunted Collector. As I began researching this topic, both paranormal enthusiasts and academics alike mentioned Cano, who frequently speaks at various paranormal conferences and events. In 2017, he was interviewed for FanFest.com where he was asked, “Along the lines of success, what knowledge is needed to make for a good investigator? What is your background?” Cano’s response included the following statement: “I have a diploma in astrology and parapsychology. It shows I am serious; I consider myself a parapsychologist” (Marie 2017). He is also often promoted on podcasts and websites as a parapsychologist. On the SCARED! video series, developed by Cano and Chris Mancuso, Cano presents himself to viewers with the title of “parapsychologist” under his name.
In the interview mentioned above, Cano claims that his astrology/parapsychology diploma shows he’s serious and is enough to consider himself a parapsychologist. But, is it enough? On his LinkedIn page, he does list Wagner College with English/Psychology 1992–1996, which may indicate an undergraduate degree, though it is not clear whether a degree was ultimately achieved. An advanced degree, such as in psychology, is usually required before continuing completion of a parapsychology degree (Auerbach 2019). This means a full-time student would require five to seven years of accredited education, then find a program that specialized in parapsychology to be awarded the title of “parapsychologist.”
It is important to note that Cano’s astrology/parapsychology diploma comes from Stratford Career Institute, which states on its website that it “does not claim any academic accreditation, it does not fulfill the legal requirements of particular state licenses or certifications” (Stratford 2019). Stratford no longer offers the astrology/parapsychology diploma, so I had to seek out other people who had taken the course. Most of my search results revealed LinkedIn pages of self-titled psychics and mediums with this same degree listed under their credentials. Reddit user “Lokarin” started a thread on the popular forum after receiving her “degree” from Stratford in 2016. Lokarin paid $450 Canadian (about $330 USD) and stated it took about six months to complete, all with open-book testing. Lokarin equated her diploma to “completing a certificate similar to a swimming badge or CPR class.”
I reached out to Loyd Auerbach, who holds an MS in Parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University (1981) and asked what was involved with becoming a parapsychologist. He replied: “Hi Kenny, happy to clear this one up, since so many ghost hunters like to say they have a ‘degree’ in Parapsychology. In fact, other than the one-off PhD Jeffrey Mishlove earned in the 1970s from UC Berkeley, the only US university (accredited) that ever gave a degree (Master of Science) was John F. Kennedy University. The degree program ran from 1977–1986/87. The vast majority of members of the Parapsychological Association have degrees in other fields, mainly Psychology (with Physics trailing behind, as well as Anthropology). They work in/around the field (not as ghost hunters). There are a number of PhDs in Psychology with a specialization in Parapsychology from the University of Edinburgh—a number of UK universities offer degrees with specializations in Parapsychology or Anomalous Psychology (about 20). But as for the US, there are currently no accredited universities/colleges offering any sort of degree in Parapsychology—though there is always the slight possibility of an individual being able to sway a university to allow them to specialize in the field under the auspices of another. However, there are a number of diploma mills out there taking advantage of people.”
I reached out to Brian Cano, relating the requirements I learned for becoming a parapsychologist, and asked why he considered himself as one. We engaged in an extremely long discussion on the topic1, most of which avoided the basic question I had asked. He did offer this: “But this has been my thought process when I do use the title, ‘Parapsychologist.’ As I said in the article you read, I’d taken courses on the topic. Stratford, Flamel … neither of them recognized as bastions of education. And yet, they are there to pass along information. I paid my fee and went through the steps as they outlined them. Can I get a job with it? No. Can I convince a skeptic that the things I’ve experienced are real because I have a couple pieces of paper saying I underwent the training? No. But it shows that I wanted to learn more and not just get my education from watching paranormal television shows.”
I’m all about wanting to learn more, but diploma mills do not educate people with formal training. Instead, they send reading materials (which usually can be find online for free) and often the blank certificates for you to fill in at your leisure. The open-book testing assures the buyer they will pass the course purchased.
Later in our email exchange, Cano stated: “My intent was never for ill, and continues to be for education and rationalism (any research you do on me would support that, even you would be forced to admit). So, if the article were to use me as an example for what is wrong with the community, I think it would be a weak example. Sure, it’s always a page turner to go after a semi-high-profile name (which I don’t even consider myself to be), but like I said, I’m not using anything I have for ill purpose.” As it relates to the topic of this article, I would agree that Cano is not using anything he has for “ill purpose.” The problem is that he is using something he does not have for an ill purpose; he didn’t earn the title of parapsychologist. Cano has used it as his title in his Scared! video series and allows the title to be attached to his name in various bios and interviews. It boosts his credibility within the paranormal community, causing others to view him as more of an authority than he really is. It’s misleading, plain and simple. Despite his opinion on the matter, I think this is an excellent example of “what is wrong with the community.”
When I started writing about this topic, I was determined to sign up for one of these courses myself—not to brag that I had a “degree” too … but so I could give a first-hand experience of what was involved with completing a diploma mill course. While listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Oh No, Ross and Carrie, they did an episode where the hosts became “certified naturopaths” after taking an online course from the Centre of Excellence (well aware that the course was bullshit). As I listened, the hosts listed other course available from the Centre of Excellence, which included a Parapsychology diploma. I signed up that night.
As I looked over the information about the course, I found it offered online study, tutor support, no time limit for completing the course, and 150 hours of study. The description revealed “the parapsychology diploma course deals with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena in a structured approach to study anomalous phenomena that defy explanation. This fascinating and thought-provoking course will teach you everything you need to know about parapsychology and how to go about investigating the mysteries for yourself.” The course boasted that I would be studying telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, mediumship, near-death experiences, reincarnation, ESP, and psychokinesis over six modules, each with an assessment test to make sure I learned everything. All this was available at a cost of $178. But wait! I had a coupon, which brought the price down to $68.77. Yup, I used a coupon to get a diploma; I understand it’s common at Ivy League schools.
Once I was all signed up, I found a comfortable seat in the lobby of my hotel (I was on a business trip) and got to work. The six modules covered various topics; theories in parapsychology, skepticism and parapsychology, fraud and deception, evidence in support of phenomena, becoming a parapsychologist, and organizing an investigation. As I scanned the pages, I found the topics were not covered anywhere near as in depth as I had hoped, and there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be found online by Google and for much less the $69 I paid (found it all for free). The information was more of a basic outline of people, places, and dates, along with many ideas that mimic basic ghost hunting websites. Under the Becoming a Parapsychologist module, the course advised joining the numerous informal paranormal investigation groups that can be found on Facebook and Meetup. I also noticed an apparent dislike for the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, mentioning both by name.
Over three days (and three Happy Hours), I logged my start and stop times for each module. When I finally completed the assessment test of the last module, I had logged a total of five hours. This was nowhere near the one hundred and fifty hours of study the website promoted. Two days later I received my grades; I received an overall score of 98 percent and a “Distinction” added to my diploma. I learned nothing new, and the information provided was available in dozens of other books I already have on my shelf, as well as from a quick Google search online. My “diploma” is not even worth the price of the single sheet of paper I used to print it out.
In closing, I offer this humble advice to readers who may be inclined to take this route: stay far away from certifications, diplomas, and degrees from online sources that offer cheap prices, short time-frames, no accreditation, and/or send you the certificates to complete yourself. In these cases, you are most likely handing over money for content that is available elsewhere for free. I suggest looking into courses provided by your local community college; attend a photography workshop or video editing class with a hands-on approach from a qualified instructor. I wholeheartedly encourage continuing education to better yourself—just don’t get caught up in the hype of “certifications” that don’t actually certify you.
If online education is better suited for you, be sure to check if the school is accredited by a recognized agency. For more information, you can visit the U.S. Department of Education website under “Accreditation in the United States” or GOV.UK under “Education and Learning.”
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable research assistance of Mellanie Ramsey, Dave Schumacher, and Tim Vickers for this project.
- I appreciate that Brian Cano took the time to respond to me. The email exchange covered six pages and contained too much information to include here. I tried to be as fair as possible in selecting portions to include in this article.
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- Long, James. 2019. Paranormal Courses. Accessed on June 12, 2019. http://www.bishopjameslong.com/Bishop_James_Long/Paranormal_Course.html.
- Marie, Linda. 2017. Brian J. Cano Interview Exclusive (Part 1 of 2): Going Beyond With A Ghost Hunter! https://fanfest.com/2017/10/31/brian-j-cano-interview-exclusive-part-1-of-2-going-beyond-with-a-ghost-hunter/.
- Starr, Patti. 2019. Patti Starr’s Original Ghost Hunting Certification! https://www.kyghostwalks.com/events.
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