March 9, 2010
Diploma mills produce approximately 200,000 phony degrees per year and rake in a not-so-phony 1 billion dollars in profit for the effort. Many operations are sophisticated to the point that cursory internet searches are insufficient to snuff out the deception. These mills produce nothing more than useless pieces of paper: phony degrees purported to be from real schools or phony degrees from schools that don't exist at all.
There does exist a level of oversight - the process called accreditation - but it is a process scattered amongst a number of independent agencies rather than integrated into one central organization. Accrediting agencies evaluate schools and determine whether or not they are legitimate and sound providers of education. Credible accrediting agencies are recognized by the Department of Education. Yet, diploma mills are now going to lengths to illegally gain accreditation. Further complicating things, there are accreditation mills, operations that reinforce the fraud by selling bogus accreditation.
There are two types of accreditation: national and regional. Agencies aim for the same goal but with different geographic emphasis. Credit transfer between nationally and regionally accredited schools is not always guaranteed. The Department of Education and The Council for Higher Education both have databases of accredited universities for easy search. The National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools is another helpful resource for accreditation research. Each regional accreditation agency has a website for reference. Alternately, Wikipedia offers an ongoing in-progress list of unaccredited schools.
Department of Education:
Council for Higher Education Accreditation:
National Association of State Administrators & Supervisors of Private Schools:
Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Higher Education)
New England Association of Schools and Colleges (Commission on Technical and Career Institutions and Commission on Institutions of Higher Education)
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (The Higher Learning Commission)
Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Colleges)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities)
The warning signs of a diploma mill:
- Admission requirements are lax; application materials are minimal.
- No classes, no exams, no papers, no research, no work whatsoever.
- Courses lack standardized course numbers, credit hours, detailed descriptions.
- Degrees are awarded in no time at all: a few months, a few weeks, overnight.
- School names are eerily similar to recognizable colleges or universities.
- Inconsistent addresses; post office boxes; lack of physical headquarters.
- Degrees are awarded for what you have already achieved in life or the workforce.
- Administrators and professors are nonexistent or inaccessible; faculty is listed without professional credentials or experience.
- Bargain prices and other sales pitches; extreme incentive or pressure to purchase.
- Flat fees that buy a full degree rather than fees per course or credit hour.
- Amateur mistakes: misspelled words, poor grammar, cheap printing.
- Spam, telemarketing, and other unsolicited contact.
Finally, don't be fooled by the .edu domain, foreign names, acronyms, testimonials, or other authoritative flourishes. Degree and diploma mills utilize the vernacular of higher education - terms, phrases, abbreviations - to create the effect of authenticity.
There may be schools that claim accreditation is pending, or that the system is slow, or that the system works against a certain kind of school. There may be seeds of truth behind these claims but gambling your education on seeds is not recommended. Avoid unaccredited schools. Do the required due diligence so that you apply to - and invest your money in - authentically accredited schools. A fraudulent diploma can risk your reputation, your career, and in some circumstances, there can be legal repercussions.
If you encounter activity that suggests a scam, you can file a complaint with The Federal Trade Commission.
"Summa Cum Fraud" by David Woman, Wired Jan 2010
Federal Trade Commission Consumer Alert "Diploma Mills: Degrees of Deception" (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt149.shtm)
State of Wisconsin Educational Approval Board "Degree, Diploma & Accreditation Mills" (http://eab.state.wi.us/resources/diplomamills.asp)
"Diploma Mills & Fake Degrees" eLearners.com (http://www.elearners.com/resources/diploma-mills.asp)
"Regional Accreditation vs. National Accreditation" eLearners.com (http://www.elearners.com/guide/regional-and-national-accreditation.asp)
Graduate Savvy: Navigating the World of Online Higher Education, Jeff Green, PhD, Glocal Press, 2007