Identifying a Diploma Mill

Having a diploma is becoming more and more importantly in our society. People without college degrees are finding it ever harder and harder to stay employed, while even those with bachelor’s degrees are feeling the pressure to attend graduate school to get better qualified for the jobs they want. Many students are turning to online degrees as an easy and cheap option for earning a degree quickly, but if you’re considering this path, a word of caution: beware of diploma mills.

What is a Diploma Mill?

Diploma mills have been around as long as universities, taking advantage of students who don’t do their homework properly. Essentially, a diploma or degree mill offers college credentials without requiring the student to go through the rigorous studying and testing usually required at a regular university, instead meeting much laxer standards or even no standards at all. Instead, they allow you to “buy” a degree rather than earn it. These institutions are not accredited, meaning that they have not been approved by state or federal governments, and therefore the degrees they offer won’t be valuable in the working world.

With the propagation of online universities over the past couple decades, diploma mills have become an even bigger problem. They make it much more difficult to get a degree online, for fear of enrolling in an illegitimate program, and ultimately devalue college degrees in general. If you get a degree from a diploma mill, it will not qualify you for any position in the working world; you will merely have wasted your money.

How can I tell if it’s a Diploma Mill?

There are a number of qualities that all diploma mills have in common, and these traits have been rigorously recorded in the laws of several different state governments. The biggest red-flag is if the institution does not have approval from one of the big U.S. accreditation agencies, which answer to the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). There are a number of different agencies, so it’s important to be familiar with them and look for the CHEA stamp of approval, so that you know when a school’s “accreditation” is a fraud. Take a look at the U.S. Department of Education’s guide to accreditation and licensing to find out which agencies are legitimate, and take a look at their list of accredited educational institutions.

But an unaccredited school isn’t necessarily a scam. There are some schools that offer legitimate degrees without accreditation, but only in particular states. For example, Oregon has a list of unaccredited schools that offer acceptable qualifications. However, other states like Michigan offer similar lists of schools that are unacceptable. If your distance learning school is located in another country, you should contact the education authorities in that country to find out what your school’s status is. It may seem like a lot of work to research an online school with this much depth, but it’s worth it in the end if it means you can avoid a scam.

What do I do if I’ve been scammed?

If you suspect that you’ve earned your degree from a diploma mill, the first thing you should do is report your school to the CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education, or equivalent organization in your state. The sooner an operation is identified and reported, the sooner it can be shut down. If the perpetrators can be located, you may be able to get your money back. Unfortunately, most diploma mills are run in a way that makes their owners almost impossible to track down, so you probably won’t be able to catch them. But at least you can prevent further scams from taking place, and you’ll know better the next time you go back to school, and perhaps be able to help educate others.