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Diploma Mills and Accreditation - Diploma Mills

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What is a diploma mill?

The Higher Education Opportunity Act defines a diploma mill as follows:

DIPLOMA MILL- The term `diploma mill' means an entity that--
(A)(i) offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training; and (ii) requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and
(B) lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education (as such term is defined in section 102) by--
(i) the Secretary pursuant to subpart 2 of part H of title IV; or (ii) a Federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations.

The dictionary defines a diploma mill as:

An institution of higher education operating without supervision of a state or professional agency and granting diplomas which are either fraudulent or because of the lack of proper standards worthless. - Webster's Third New International Dictionary

Diploma mills are schools that are more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education. You need to know how to protect yourself as a consumer.

Important: The Better Business Bureau suggests you watch for the following features and regard them as red flags when considering whether or not to enroll in a school:

  • Degrees that can be earned in less time than at an accredited postsecondary institution, an example would be earning a Bachelor's degree in a few months.
  • A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Often, these schools will list accreditation by organizations that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. These schools will also imply official approval by mentioning state registration or licensing.
  • Offers that place unrealistic emphasis on offering college credits for lifetime or real world experience.
  • Tuition paid on a per-degree basis, or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Accredited institutions charge by credit hours, course, or semester.
  • Little or no interaction with professors.
  • Names that are similar to well known reputable universities.
  • Addresses that are box numbers or suites. That campus may very well be a mail drop box or someone's attic.

With the increase in the availability of earning degrees online there has been an increase in diploma mills. Diploma mills often use the Internet to market their programs. Diploma mills often promise degrees for a fee in a few short days or months.

Note: Not all online degree programs are diploma mills. Do your homework and research schools that you are interested in attending.

Diploma mills require little, if any, academic work in order to earn a degree. Degrees from diploma mills are sometimes based on life experience alone or a level of academic work that is far below what an accredited postsecondary institution would require. Diploma mills can require little or no work but the result is the same, a degree that has no value and is meaningless.

If you still have doubts, contact your Better Business Bureau or state attorney general's office to make sure the school is operating legally in a state and to see if anyone has filed a complaint.

Remember: A bogus degree from a diploma mill is not likely to impress prospective employers and could be a complete waste of money. Today many employers are requiring degrees from legitimately accredited institutions. Federal agencies are being directed by the federal government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to verify the legitimacy of an applicant's degree(s). According to OPM, "there is no place in Federal employment for degrees or credentials from diploma mills."

Fake Accrediting Agencies

Diploma mills often claim accreditation by a fake accrediting agency to attract more students to their degree programs and make them seem more legitimate. Because diploma mills aren't accredited by a nationally recognized agency, you will not find the institution's accrediting agency on the U.S. Department of Education's List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies.

Tip: Use the above references to check that the institution you are looking at has been accredited by a nationally recognized agency. Those accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are recognized for purposes of obtaining federal dollars. This will be helpful to you as you are deciding on financial arrangements for your degree.

The fake accrediting agency is just for show; it offers its accreditation for a fee without an in-depth review of the school's programs or teachers. These accrediting agencies do not ensure that students receive a quality education. Often, the fake accrediting agency has simply conducted a business deal with an institution without investigating the institution in any manner.

These fake accrediting agencies may adopt names that are similar to other well known accrediting agencies, and sprinkle legitimate institutions in its list of accredited members. They may even use all the right sounding words in their marketing materials to describe their accrediting standards and review processes. When actually, those accrediting standards and procedures are never put to use and the accreditation is meaningless.

Tip: Do not allow these agencies and institutions to mislead you; always do your homework on any institution you want to attend. In some states, it can be illegal to use a degree from an institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. Remember it isn't enough to know that an institution is accredited; you need to find out as much as you can about the accrediting agency. Your efforts will be worth your time and energy. For more information, see the section below on Resources and Publications.

Foreign Institutions and Diploma Mills

There is an important distinction between foreign institutions and agencies that accredit foreign institutions. The U.S. Department of Education does not recognize foreign accrediting agencies, however, accrediting agencies that have been recognized by the Secretary of Education may accredit foreign institutions. There are also foreign institutions that market their degrees in the United States, and foreign education ministries may recognize these institutions.

Tip: Look out for foreign diploma mills selling their degrees in this country.

Some of these foreign diploma mills claim to have approval from the education ministry of their country to offer degrees, when, in reality, they're operating without the knowledge of the country. Often foreign diploma mills will use the name of the foreign education ministry in their marketing material to make them seem more legitimate. The institution is trying to make students incorrectly believe that its programs have been reviewed and meet some level of quality.

Earning a degree from a foreign institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized agency can be problematic. To learn more about the issues and problems that may arise from pursuing an unaccredited degree, read over the frequently asked questions found at this site:

Tip: Before enrolling in a foreign institution, find out as much as you can about the accreditor and the institutions it accredits, as well as the recognition process of the foreign education ministry. This information will give you a better picture of the institution and its reputation. To review a list of agencies that license and regulate higher education in Canada and other foreign countries, take a look at and the U.S. Network for Education Information.

Foreign Credential Evaluation

Often a student will be required, by another educational institution or place of employment, to have their foreign educational credits evaluated in order to determine the comparability between those credits or degree to those received from an accredited U.S. institution. In these instances, a useful service is provided by private services that evaluate degrees from foreign institutions. Not all U.S. institutions, employers, and licensing authorities perform evaluations of non-U.S. diplomas, credits, or qualifications. In many cases this work is delegated to private credential evaluation services, the evaluations provided by these services are then recognized as valid by the necessary entities. Private credential evaluation services will evaluate a foreign degree for comparability to a U.S. degree.

If you are told that you need to have your academic or professional qualifications evaluated by someone other than the institution, employer, or licensing authority to which you are applying, there are several possible sources of information. To find a credential evaluation service you can use the Internet's search engines. You can also refer to the U.S. Network for Education Information (USNEI) , a Department of Education-administered Web site and public-private partnership, that provides a list of possible credential evaluation services.

It is important to understand that the U.S. federal government does not recommend or endorse any individual credential evaluation service or group of services, and does not conduct evaluations. The resource links provided here are solely for information purposes and to help in locating potential evaluators. Please do not send documents or credentials to USNEI for evaluation. Neither USNEI nor the U.S. government serve as a channel of appeal for persons dissatisfied with evaluations.

Caution: Like fake accrediting agencies, there are also fake credential evaluation services. These organizations work on behalf of diploma mills to ensure that degrees from these schools are determined to be comparable to a degree that is received from an accredited U.S. institution.

College Credit for Life Experience

Although many legitimate institutions give academic credit for life and work experiences, beware of institutions that offer college credit and degrees based on life experience, with little or no documentation of prior learning. These institutions do not use valid methods to determine the amount of credit to be awarded. There are many employers, institutions and licensing boards that will question the legitimacy of credit and degrees earned in this way, these organizations will only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Legitimate institutions offering credit for life or work experiences may use any combination of the following methods to determine how much credit is given: standardized tests, prior learning portfolio, oral exams, past college credit, and professional certification. The amount of credit awarded will vary from institution to institution. At legitimate institutions credit is awarded only if the work experience is equivalent to what would have been taught in a college level course.

Tip: Students should check with other institutions regarding transfer of credit policies to determine if your credits will be accepted by an institution you hope or plan to enroll in.

.edu Internet Address

Today, most educational institutions are recognized on the Web by their .edu Internet addresses. However, not all institutions that use an .edu as a part of their Internet address are legitimate institutions. Before the U.S. Department of Commerce created its current, strict requirements, some questionable institutions were approved to use an .edu. The current requirements allow only colleges and institutions accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to use the .edu, however, some more suspect institutions have maintained the .edu addresses.

Beware: Institutions that were approved to use an .edu before the new requirements were put in place may still be using the .edu as part of their Internet address. This means there may be some illegitimate institutions out there with an .edu. Whether an institution uses an .edu or not, it's important to know as much about the institution as possible before enrolling.

Scholarship Scams

Like other scams, the goal of scholarship scams is to deceive, using a lot of clever tactics, like asking for money in advance or promising a scholarship with a "money back guarantee." The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides information to the public about ways to avoid scholarships scams. To learn more about scholarships scams and/or file a complaint, visit FTC's Web site at:


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Last Modified: 12/23/2009