Diploma Mills: How to Know One When You See One

Online learning has come a long way in the past few decades, and the Internet has made a big contribution to this. Today’s online schools offer rigorous classes and a variety of material delivery methods, including video conferencing, podcast, forums, email and chat. Many online schools are accredited by the same agencies that accredit traditional schools—meaning they are held to the same academic standards. And organizations in industry, government and academia are realizing the benefits of online degrees—particularly for the continuing education of their own employees.

In the past, employers were not as accepting of online degrees as they were of traditional credentials. That’s changing, but the perception gap is not entirely closed. It’s likely that a leading cause of this is that while legitimate online learning is thriving, so is the diploma mill—and it’s giving all of online education a bad name.

A diploma mill is a sham school that issues a fake diploma. For a fee of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and little to no academic work, you’ll get a diploma that looks legit—but it’s not.

There are two common types of diploma mills. One is easy to spot—for a fee of a few hundred dollars, they’ll mail you a legitimate-looking diploma. No need to send transcripts, take classes or write dissertations.

The other can be a bit more difficult to find, even for prospective students—it’s possible to go through an entire degree program without realizing your school is fake. Here are a few ways to spot a diploma mill before you sign up.

1. Check the accreditation.

If a school is accredited by one of the six regional accrediting agencies that also certify traditional schools, it has to meet the same academic standards that all legit schools have to satisfy in order for their degrees to carry weight. Check the accreditation; if it’s regionally accredited, the school is legitimate.

If it’s not regionally accredited, that doesn’t mean it’s a diploma mill. There’s a long list of legitimate national accreditors as well. These agencies primarily accredit professional schools. There are also a handful of religious accreditors. If your school is accredited only by one of these, its credits may not transfer if you try to move to a regionally-accredited school—but that doesn’t mean the school isn’t legit.

Accreditation mills—fake accrediting agencies—are as much a problem as diploma mills. Check your school’s accreditation against the lists of recognized accreditors with the USDE and the CHEA. If your school’s accreditor is not found in either of these databases, chances are it’s fake—and you’re looking at a diploma mill.

2. Is it too good to be true?

When compared with legit schools, the trickier diploma mills are a great deal: they cost thousands less, and they recognize “experience credit” that (they claim) allows most of their students to get a four-year degree in months, not years. Legitimate schools sometimes offer experience credit as well, and you can often shave significant time off a real degree program by proving your experience. The difference is that with a legit school, you’ll really have to prove it. You may be asked to assemble a portfolio, write essays, take standardized tests, or go through an interview process to determine your existing skills. With a diploma mill, you may just be asked to send in your resume.

3. They charge by degree.

It’s very rare for legitimate schools, either online or off, to charge by the degree. Most legitimate schools charge by the semester or by the credit hour, and a semester at school usually costs the same no matter what degree you’re earning. With diploma mills, you may be charged by the actual degree. This should be a warning sign in most cases.

4. You don’t have to work hard.

The diploma mills that try to look like traditional schools will actually assign work—you might even have to write a dissertation. But the dissertation will have to be only ten pages long, and your other assignments will be equally easy. If your school isn’t making you work for your degree, chances are you won’t learn much—and they’re not in it to teach you.

The Internet gives diploma mills a chance to thrive by allowing them to reach more people—and to position themselves as legitimate online schools. Be wary when choosing your school, in either an online or traditional setting. If they’re too easy on you, the accrediting agency isn’t recognized by the USDE or CHEA, or the deal seems just too good to be true, consider looking elsewhere for a degree.