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What is a Diploma Mill?

A diploma mill is a business that makes a profit while disguising itself as a legitimate school, college, or university.  Also known as a "degree mill", a diploma mill will pose as a real university and reward degrees to students without evaluating any (or very little) academic work.  Degree mills make their money by selling printed degrees and by providing falsified transcripts and academic references to individuals who purchase those degrees.

Diploma Mills

Diploma Mills

A degree mill sells several levels of degrees, from bachelor's degrees to doctoral degrees.  Customers can also purchase academic honors (like summa cum laude) from diploma mills.  There are typically two types of diploma mills customers:

  • Individuals who are unaware that they are enrolling in a degree mill in search of a genuine academic program.
  • Individuals who are aware that they are committing fraud and are doing so to quickly build their credentials for academic or professional reasons.

NOTE: Directoryofschools.com only lists accredited schools that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

So how do diploma mills get started?
We all understand that online education is fairly new to most postsecondary institutions, with schools  constantly developing and revising their programs to fit today's student needs. There are new programs being introduced to potential students every day.  So it would be simple for an individual to create a Web site with what looks like to be a legitimate school, but actually is a fake.

The internet unfortunately can be a place where counterfeit and scam operations can target victims.  So as long as diploma mills web sites have convincing writing and appealing images, the web site is able to grant fake degrees undetected.  It is not that difficult to create a web site with a .edu domain name.

Any individual can develop a diploma mill as long as they have access to items such as quality color printers and fax; a phone number and email address; and a good looking Web site.  There is a man who is an expert in the field of distance learning whose name is Dr. John Bear.  In his 2003 edition of Guide to Earning Nontraditional Degrees, he unavoidably includes 481 phony schools.

Can I get an example of a diploma mill?

There are two kinds of diploma mills, those that offer low quality, specious courses and programs, and those that simply sell you a copy of a degree with your name on it.

For example, it has been reported that a personal trainer for professional baseball athletes, Brian McNamee, earned his doctoral degree from a diploma mill.  The diploma mill is called Columbus University.  Columbus had operated out of many different states including Louisiana, Mississippi, and now Alabama.

It was reported that Mr. McNamee had to write a dissertation in order to complete his doctoral program.  At that time, he had little or no interaction with any faculty member.  Columbus University claims that it is "The Established Name in Distance Education".  It also claims that it is accredited by The Adult Higher Education Alliance.  THIS IS A FAKE ACCREDITING AGENCY!

The Adult Higher Education Alliance is not recognized by the United States Department of Education.  On the U.S. Department of Education's web site, there is a list of several established, recognized accrediting agencies.  This list includes the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), and Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET).

There are several other indicators demonstrating Columbus University's illegitimacy.

If you visit their Web site and look up the registration information, scroll all the way down to the section labeled "Whois Record."  There, you will find that they list a third party company rather than the mailing address on their home page.  This is suspicious since a legitimate educational provider does not typically do this.  Most schools will disclose their complete contact information and mailing addresses a long with their registration information.  Because they sell fraudulent degrees, diploma mills have every reason to hide and mask their location.

How can I identify if a school is a diploma mill?

  • The organization changes its address frequently, sometimes moving from state to state.
  • There is no selectivity in admissions.  That means no inquires about previous test scores or detailed academic history.
  • They often have names that are similar to well-known colleges or universities.  They also fail to mention an accrediting agency or name a FAKE accrediting agency.
  • Written materials, sometimes even the diploma itself, include numerous spelling and grammatical errors.
  • No interaction with faculty or professors.  (e.g. only two or three email is received from a professor.)
  • There is usually an overemphasis on the brevity and speed with which someone can receive a degree.  (e.g. "Sign up today and have your degree shipped overnight!")
  • It will take far less time than normal to receive a degree (e.g. 30 days) or the diploma might even be printed with a specific backdate.
  • Fees and tuition are typically on a pre-degree basis.
  • Degree requirements are unspecified and vague.  You will find that many requirements lack class descriptions and how many credit hours are required to complete a program.
  • Academic honors (e.g. Summa Cum Laude) and grade point averages (GPA) can be specified at the time of the purchase.

Is there anything being done about these degree mills?
Unfortunately, fraudulent schools are increasingly sophisticated in their scams and continue to spread.  These diploma mills survive by operating in states that lack strict laws regarding school accreditation, such as Utah, Hawaii, California, and Louisiana.  They market themselves as religious organizations, or assume identities of well-known schools. 

The United States guarantees separation between church and state because of constitutional safeguards.  Most states are unwilling to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches.  This would include their right to grant degrees.  Diploma mills will take advantage of these types of situations as much as possible.

To take advantage of less rigorous laws and further protect themselves, diploma mills will often operate out of multiple political jurisdictions.  They only sell degrees in other states or other countries.  There are many degree mills that operate out of England, only selling fake degrees to people in other countries, primarily the United States, Asia, and Africa.

Sometimes it can be difficult to prove fraud in the case of a diploma mill.  Diploma mills will often times immunize itself from prosecution by fully acknowledging that it is a diploma mill, and by being forthcoming about its business.  The individuals that buy degrees from this particular diploma mill are completely aware that they are receiving a degree without having to complete any academic program.  In this case, the diploma mill is acting only as a business.

It is very risky to claim to have a degree without having completed an accredited degree program, let alone buy a fake degree.  Consumers with bogus degrees could possibly embarrass themselves professionally, or even find themselves out of a job.  But the most severe consequence is having to face criminal charges.  In Oregon, using a degree from an unlicensed institution to get a job or receive a promotion is illegal.

NOTE: Directoryofschools.com only lists accredited schools that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

So how do I protect myself from diploma mills?
It is important to research your online school if you're looking to enroll in a degree program.  Here's what to do if you have any doubts about an online program:

  • Check with professional associations and licensing boards to see if the program delivers an acceptable level of training.
  • Find out and make sure that the school is connected to an established, respectable parent company.
  • Ask about the faculty: What degrees do they have? Who teaches the course? What is their area of expertise?
  • It's a good idea to not limit your research to classified ads or survey the Web in search of the right program or course.
  • See if the online school is an accredited institution and by whom.
  • Refer to the published guides online. This includes correspondence and other distance delivered courses.
  • Check with the institution before you intend to transfer any online credits earned from another college or university.
  • Make sure the school is operating legally in a state and see if there have been any complaints filed by calling or writing the Better Business Bureau.

How do they get away with selling fake degrees?
Online diploma mills can be very difficult to detect.  Their Web sites describe a faculty composed of dedicated professors and scenic campus photographs.  A diploma mill can easily appear to be a genuine, accredited academic institution. 

You might have seen an email from a diploma mill in your inbox before.  An email from a diploma mill does not usually include a college or university name.  They will typically use catch phrases like "Earn a degree from a prestigious, non-accredited university" and may only leave just a phone number.

To help lure customers in, their promotions appear to be distinguished and established.  There is also the possibility of speaking with a diploma mill representative on the phone.  They will be sure to deliver many pitches like:

  • "There will be no required tests, books, classes, or interviews."
  • "Do you want your diploma with the hassle of annoying exams and dreary classes?"
  • "You will be sure to receive your diploma within days."
  • "Get a bachelor's degree and even masters today for only $1,500."
  • "If you enroll today, we will not only send you your diploma, but you'll receive a wallet-sized replica of your diploma, along with a letter of recommendation and even honors of your choice."
  • "Only $550 will certify you for a bachelor's degree from our university."
  • "You will always receive unlimited support from us.  We'll even include verification of your credentials to prospective employers."
  • "John Doe, you have been selected to receive your MBA!"
  • "All it takes is your present knowledge and life experience to earn a degree from our university."
  • "For only another $99 in tuition, you will earn Magna Cum Laude."

Related Accreditation Resources from directoryofschools.com

Research our huge selection of online degree programs.

Why accreditation is important.

Learn about the agency that is accrediting your school.

Here is some additional information about diploma mills on the Web

Why fake degrees are illegal in Oregon

See why Oregon's lawmakers take a strong stance against diploma mills.  They also provide information about the legality of these businesses and their customers.

This is how to file a complaint against a diploma mill

Help shut these fraudulent businesses down with The U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Understand the background on diploma mills.

Author - Caleb Schallert

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