Diploma Mills & Fake Degrees

Diploma mills, generally speaking, are schools that are more interested in making money than offering a quality education. We’re going to cover a number of important topics to help you identify and avoid these institutions that have their own self-interest at heart. Read on to see why diploma mills are a problem, how to tell if a school is a diploma mill, characteristics of legitimate degrees, what is being done to stop degree mills, the history of online diploma mills, specific examples of these schemes, and an informative diploma mills infographic.

Diploma Mills Infographic

Click the picture to see the whole Delving into Diploma Mills infographic.

Introduction to diploma mills

Anyone who sits up at 3 am knows that there’s a growing market in new universities offering students a chance to finally get their college degree. These providers may be easy to find, but are they legitimate? Potential students can fall prey to what are known as diploma mills (also known as degree mills) — businesses that offer degrees that are worth less than the paper they are printed on.

It can seem like a harmless deception, substituting a quick set of acronyms for months or years spent in a classroom. Some people may assume that with the rising costs of higher education, getting a good deal on a diploma is a great alternative. But individuals who hold degrees from institutions that are known as diploma mills can put themselves and others at risks due to a lack of knowledge and skills that a traditional college education provides.

The history of diploma mills

With the proliferation of the internet, it’s easy to think that diploma mills are an outgrowth of having access to just about any kind of service online. But the history of these mills stretches much further back.

In the nineteenth century, universities were growing at an explosive rate. A growing middle class fed the need to be educated just as the upper class had been for centuries. More practical educational programs meant that a college degree could offer training and knowledge that someone could use later to secure a job.

Just as legitimate universities started appear, so too did con artists looking to make a quick buck. In 1876, the federal government began to take note of that which they called diploma-mills. Calling them a “national disgrace,” government leaders worried that these mills could lead to the devaluation of higher education in America.

Universities continued to grow at a steady pace for the first few decades of the twentieth century as college life became a more common pastime of young adults. After World War II ended and the American economy exploded, the government began to realize the value of using colleges as training grounds for returning GIs looking for work.

The postwar boom for degrees

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) provided money for these solders to attend college, and with an infusion of cash, diploma mills began to look for an opportunity to also take advantage of the bill. So many former GIs “earned” degrees from these institutions that by the start of the Korean War, Congress decided to take action. A bill requiring any institution that received federal money meet certain quality standards was passed in the 1950s.

The GI Bill had the effect of flooding the marketplace with many highly educated workers, which would later raise the bar for new hires. With nearly every applicant having a Bachelor’s degree, some human resources departments began requiring Master’s degrees to determine the most qualified applicants. Baby Boomers experienced this effect as they found that their four year college degrees weren’t as valuable as they’d been led to believe.

The requirements for earning a graduate degree are often more strenuous from those of Bachelor’s programs, and many applicants found that their test scores and GPA’s meant that they were unable to get an advanced degree. Diploma-mills offered what looks like a tempting alternative to traditional graduate schools.

As the internet grew, many people who found their degrees devalued turned online to boost their education. As legitimate colleges and universities embraced online learning, for-profit institutions also saw an opportunity online. Numerous legitimate looking websites sprang up offering degrees online for busy students. The sheer number of options today makes it difficult for students to know if a school will offer them a legitimate degree.

Just how big of a problem are diploma mills?

Many people are shocked to learn while applying for a job or promotion that the program they spent their hard earned money and time on was in fact a degree-mill. Workers today face pressure to earn advanced college degrees to stand out in what seems like a shrinking pool of promotions. Others learn while trying to secure a job that their degree is worthless. These degrees could very well cost a person a job or promotion, thus threatening a person’s livelihood.

The problem is so widespread that in 2004, the Government Accounting Office found that 463 federal employees held degrees from diploma mills. This number was likely a very low estimate compared to the actual number of federal employees holding fraudulent degrees.

These institutions also cause a safety risk. Some offer degrees in fields such as medicine and engineering, producing graduates who are not sufficiently knowledgeable to practice in these technical fields. A woman working as a regulator or inspector who holds a diploma-mill degree could place her agency at risk by making inspections that are deeply flawed.

Employers sometimes have a hard time trying to evaluate whether an applicant’s degree provided him the knowledge and skills needed in order to perform a specific job.
A related problem are so-called accreditation mills, which often purport to examine the quality of these institutions and ensure that they provide a comparable education. As with diploma mills, these providers can be for-profit and provide little to no quality validation for students or employers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes guidelines available on its website to help guide employers in determining if a potential hire or current employee holds a degree from a diploma mill. The FTC warns private employers that hiring employees with mill-earned degrees not only damages the credibility of the employer, but it can also put them at risk. If an employer places an unqualified person in a position of responsibility, the company could potentially be held liable for any damage done by the employee. The FTC warns employers to be wary of applicants who may:

  • Hold degrees out of sequence, such as earning a Master’s before an Associate’s degree.
  • Earn several degrees in a short amount of time. Three Bachelor’s degrees in one year is suspicious to say the least.
  • Claim to graduate from a school that is considerably distant from the applicant’s home or employment.
  • Hold a degree from a school with a name that sounds suspiciously similar to a well-known legitimate university.

The FTC advises employers to do their own research and look online for an applicant’s stated alma mater. If an online search is unsatisfactory, it is suggested that a human resources professional contact the school directly. Additionally, the FTC suggests an employer ask an applicant for a certified transcript and proof that the school is accredited by a Department of Education recognized accrediting agency.

How to tell if a school is a diploma mill

Just because a school offers degrees earned entirely online, it doesn’t automatically follow that the institution is a diploma mill. There are a growing number of prestigious universities offering online degrees such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Florida, but diploma mills will often make promises that seem a little too good to be true. These promises might include:

  • A promise to grant a degree in a period of time that is much shorter than traditional schools. A typical Associate’s degree can take two years to finish; a Bachelor’s typically takes three to five years. If a provider promises a degree in three months, it’s likely a scam.
  • No external review process. Accredited colleges and universities are required to undergo review processes that evaluate the quality of the teaching within a school.
  • No published quality standards. Does it claim that to have permanent accreditation? Neither CHEA nor the DOE recognize permanent accreditation. Schools must be reviewed periodically to ensure that standards do not lapse.
  • An offer to substitute life experiences for coursework. Many legitimate institutions will accept internships as part of fulfilling a program’s requirements, but if a school accepts foreign vacations or volunteer work you did in the past as a substitute for completing a course, you may be dealing with a diploma mill.
  • Tuition offered on a per degree basis or a discount for multiple degrees from a provider is a warning sign.
  • Little interaction with professors or fellow classmates. Learning to work as part of a team is a critical component of most legitimate degree programs.
  • Foreign accreditation only. If the school is only accredited by an unreachable institution in Botswana, then that’s a huge red flag.
  • No selection process for incoming students. If the school requires no test scores or GED, suspicions should be raised.
  • No required tests, courses of study. This sounds obvious but there are a lot of diploma mills out there that try to twist this into sounding acceptable.
  • You can specify if you want honors at the time of purchase. Honors should be earned, not paid for with a credit card.

If you are thinking about a school that has any these red flags, check to see if it is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. The U. S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Center for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintain lists of institutions that have legitimately recognized accreditation.

What is being done to stop degree mills?

In the United States, each state is responsible for monitoring the quality of the institutions within its borders. Oregon and Michigan have programs that list and monitor any provider suspected of being a diploma mill. Unfortunately, many states have weak oversight, and diploma mills often flourish in these states.

The Federal government has stepped in before to address the problem of diploma-mills. In the 1980s and 1990s, a FBI task force prosecuted suspected diploma mills. By the beginning on the twenty-first century, however, the unit’s power was curtailed and the mills were able to grow once again.

You can check with your local Better Business Bureau or state Attorney General office to see if anyone has filed a complaint against a suspected diploma mill. The differences in the laws governing these mills in each state make prosecuting them tricky. A person in Oregon who presents a degree from a diploma mill when applying for state employment faces criminal charges. In California, by contrast, there is less regulation over diploma mills.

Ultimately, as a consumer you are responsible for investigating any school you plan to attend. You can check to see if a school is accredited (and if so, by whom), and schools that are not should be avoided. You can also ask detailed questions about a school when you speak with recruiters. Anything that feels wrong in your gut or sounds like one of our red flags listed above should be approached with extreme caution.

What are the characteristics of a legitimately earned degree?

After the economy crashed in 2008, some colleges lost a portion of the government and private funding that kept them going. As a result, many of them turned to tuition hikes to cover the lost revenue. Getting a college degree costs much more now than it did a decade ago.

Let’s take a look at the average cost of college (tuition, room, and board) in 2010-2011 with data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • An associate’s degree from a 2-year institution has an average cost of $8,909 per academic year.
  • A bachelor’s degree from a 4-year institution costs an average of $22,092 per academic year.
  • Master’s degree programs and doctoral degree programs usually cost more than undergraduate programs.

It can take an average of two years to complete an Associates degree program, while a Bachelor’s program typically takes four years to complete. Depending on the degree, a Master’s degree program can last from one to three years, while a PhD can take as many as three to seven years.

Graduate degree programs will often require that students complete hundreds of hours of directed study on a niche topic and either produce a thesis on their findings or complete comprehensive exams in order to receive a degree. These efforts should take much longer than a few weeks or months for a student to complete.

Diploma mills offer what can seem like an attractive alternative to traditional colleges. For workers pressed for time, getting a degree in a short amount of time may seem to be the perfect solution, but the quality of education that these institutions provide can lead to dangers for one’s career and for the general public.

Recommended Links

U.S. Department of Education’s Guide to Diploma Mills
Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Degree Mills Information
FTC’s Consumer Information on Diploma Mills

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