I-Team: Higher education degrees are just a click away

Welcome to Ashley University. The online school's impressive website is slick, complete with video testimonials from its professors.

But NBC 10 couldn't find any way to contact those professors by phone or email -- or any information online about their teaching or research.

And that was just the beginning.

I contacted Ashley University through its online chat, and quickly got a call back. Without any proof that I'd attended college, Ashley agreed to grant me a Ph.D. in political science.

The cost was $648 and about 10 minutes of my time.

The operator even offered to backdate my degree by as much as 20 years.

The U.S. Department of Education says there are several red flags that a school may be a so-called diploma mill: degrees earned very quickly, tuition paid per diploma not per credit, extensive credit for life experience, and little or no interaction with professors.

"A diploma mill basically would be a place where a student can pay for a degree. They're paying for a piece of paper that's giving them a credential that really is going to be misrepresenting what they've learned," said Holly Shadoian, vice president of Academic Affairs at Rhode Island College.

Shadoian -- who has a real Ph.D. -- explained the problem with getting a degree in that way.

"I think it devalues what a true education is all about. And that's the time and the effort that you spend putting in to learn and improve your abilities and improve your skills. Making sure that your skills match what you say on your resume," Shadoian said.

An NBC 10 investigation revealed a mismatch between resume and reality inside the Providence public school district.

Nancy Stevenin was hired in December as the district's Supervisor of Transition and Community Development. Her task was finding real-world jobs for special needs young people at the Birch Vocational Academy.

Birch came under fire after a federal investigation revealed some students were paid pennies an hour to do menial labor.

Stevenin's salary is more than $94,000 a year. Her bachelor's degree is from Ashley University.

How was she able to get through the hiring process without a valid bachelor's degree?

"While we had the degree, quote-unquote, usually if someone is an experienced professional, we don't go back into the academic history," Lusi said.

Davis: "So no one looked into what is Ashley University? When did she graduate? Where are her transcripts?"

Lusi: "She submitted the degree. But no, we did not go back and check the university itself."

Lusi sat down with the I-Team to explain her decision to keep Stevenin on the job. She said Stevenin is getting results at Birch and has an impressive resume.

The one thing she apparently didn't have was a valid college degree, something the district says she'll now be allowed to earn from an accredited school while keeping her current job and salary.

Davis: "If you're a classroom teacher making $30,000 or $40,000 a year with a bachelor's degree, and you see an administrator making $94,000 a year without, that could be frustrating."

Lusi: "You know, I don't really agree with that. I mean, I guess people may get frustrated that Bill Gates doesn't have a degree. But he's judged on the merits of his work."

Ashley University says my Ph.D. in political science should arrive in the mail in the next few days, complete with a transcript of classes I never took and a certificate of excellence.