10 Tips to Avoid Diploma Mills

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What are diploma mills?

how to avoid diploma millsThe 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.

What that means in simple terms: a diploma mill is a fake online school that supplies those enrolled with worthless and/or fraudulent degrees, certifications, diplomas, or whatever they use as supposed proof of program completion.

For those who are struggling in the recessive economy fast online degrees or training seem highly appealing at first glance. In taking advantage of the hard times and those caught in them, diploma mills will be sneakier and more aggressive than ever about duping the under-educated or unemployed into the fast and easy way to get a better job – or any job. If you have no college education and/or are unemployed or looking for a better paying job – you are a prime target for diploma mills.

You may be thinking: What is so terrible about these diploma mills?

Well, aside from stealing your money for a worthless piece of paper, if you submit a fraudulent degree to an employer and it is later discovered, it will almost certainly cost you your job. If you are employed in legal counsel, medical services, psychological practices, and several other professions, you can even be prosecuted.

Diploma mills are not real education or training programs. They only pretend to be, in order to entice the desperate, the frustrated and the eager to get ahead. And who isn’t eager to get ahead when he or she is financially struggling? Diploma mills take advantage of the urgency that is felt in difficult financial and economic situations by offering a fast and easy way to “get ahead.” You may think, “well who would fall for that?” But if you don’t know what to look for, the appeal of earning a college degree or a professional license in a matter of months, or even weeks – is too enticing to pass up. The desire for a better, happier life becomes the hook that these criminals use to reel their victims in. When you consider they are exploiting the natural human desire to pursue happiness and success, you can see why diploma mill operators are able to scam ambitious people out of money.

If you want to be absolutely certain, you can peruse an extensive list of diploma mills. Note that although compiled for Oregon students, the list is valid throughout the country.

10 Tell-Tale Signs and Tips for Identifying Diploma Mills

1. Fake accreditation or no accreditation

Accreditation is one of the most important aspects of any legitimate education, training program or certification course. But how do you know if an education website has a real or fake accreditation? It is easier to verify than it sounds.

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Diploma mills take advantage of inexperienced students and adults who have no idea how to discriminate a valid accreditation organization from a fake one, and may be unaware that academic accreditation even exists. Most diploma mills will claim accreditation by a fake organization, so called “accreditation mill”. ALWAYS check the accreditation organization listed or claimed by an online university, training or degree program. You can do this by going to the database of accredited academic institutions; found at www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation, and/or also check the USDE (United States Dept. of Education) and CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). Both brick and mortar and online schools must be legitimately accredited to award valid degrees. Any recognized accrediting agency will be listed by one or both of the above education authorities.

Some diploma mill websites make claims like “fully accredited and standardized degree program” – but never provides a specific accreditation agency. However, it is much more common to claim accreditation from a fake agency.

However, be sure not to mistrust every online school or training program you see. There are many legitimate online degree programs that are for-profit. In fact, most colleges and universities are still places of business – but that doesn’t make them fraudulent. Again, always do your homework and check up on any school before enrolling and/or throwing out your money.

2. Name is similar to a reputable college or university

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This is best illustrated by example, so here are just a few name comparisons

  • Fake: Columbus University – www.columbusu.com – Uses a fake accrediting agency and a third party address. Also notice the .com domain instead of .edu.
  • Real: Columbus State University – www.columbusstate.edu – Real state school in Georgia.

Other examples of diploma mills with names similar to legitimate universities:

  • Fake: James Monroe University and Madison University – both diploma mills
  • Real: James Madison University – well respected four year university in Virginia
  • Fake: Hamilton University – infamous diploma mill
  • Real: Hamilton College – a real four-year college in Clinton, New York

Diploma mills use names similar to reputable schools because their target audience is young adults who often don’t know the difference. This basic rip-off naming tactic is often enough to fool the unsuspecting. ALWAYS check the validity of any online degree program through their accreditation agency and other resources.

3. Degrees are awarded according to “life experience.”

An entire degree based upon life experience is never awarded by legitimate colleges and universities. They may award a few credits at most, but never an entire degree. Diploma mills place heavy emphasis on obtaining a degree equivalent to your life experience or job skills. Regardless of whether a valid, accredited school is online or on-campus, heavy coursework is always required in order to finish a degree program. Valid or legitimate degrees awarded solely for job experience – even years of experience – do not exist.

4. Degrees promised in extremely short amount of time

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Similar to the above characteristic of illegitimate schools, diploma mills often emphasize that you can “earn” your degree or diploma in a few days or weeks. This is never the case with a valid degree. Even accelerated degree programs take at least six to eight months, and that is usually limited to professional training programs or second degree programs where the student has already earned a bachelor’s degree, such as a BS to BSN program. If a school is promising you to become a medical assistant in a matter of days or weeks, it is not a legitimate school.

5. Little or no coursework is required

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Not unlike number three in this list, which points to degrees being awarded based upon experience, diploma mills may also advertise that you won’t have to complete any coursework. Of course this sounds great – what student wouldn’t want a degree without having to work for it? But the truth is, a degree that’s given and not earned is completely illogical. The whole idea of earning a degree IS the coursework: classes, homework, studying, tests. If it didn’t take time and work to earn a degree, they wouldn’t be worth anything – just like a diploma mill degree is worthless. Would you allow a MA to stick a needle in your arm and take your blood if she told you she got her degree online without doing a lick of coursework?

6. They charge a flat fee or per degree

All legitimate schools have tuition that varies according to degree program and credits taken. Even online degree programs have tuition rates that vary, or charge per credit. There is no such thing as a “pay per degree” rate at valid education institutions or training school.

7. Aggressive sales and marketing tactics

Emails are often sent and phone calls repeatedly made by diploma mill “sales representatives.” Usually emails and calls are aimed at young adults and new high school graduates, because they often cannot distinguish a scam. If a site that claims to be a legit online university or degree program uses spam mail, pop-ups, and calls repeatedly – it is not a trustworthy school.

8. No physical property, regular mailing address or fully disclosed contact information

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Any reputable or legitimate university or career training facility will at the very least provide prospective students with their full contact information, including email, phone numbers, and a regular mailing address. However, an online degree program from a school with an actual physical location or campus is always more reliable. There are legitimate schools that provide education and degree programs solely online, but these online higher education systems still have a real physical address and a corporate office of some kind, which would also have regular phone numbers and street address. Beware of any website that uses a P.O. box as their mailing address: A red flag that the degree program or school is fraudulent. One of the surest signs or factors that a school is a reputable institution is a physical campus location.

9. No .edu website domain name

While a .edu domain does not guarantee that a school is trustworthy or even legitimate, there are certain criteria that .edu websites must meet in order to be granted a .edu address. Not just anyone can obtain a .edu domain name for their website, for the very reason that a site with an .edu domain is supposed to be an educational, trustworthy resource. Unless the diploma mill is run by a gifted con artist, diploma mills will typically not have an .edu web address. Remember the example from above with Columbus University, at columbusu.com? Nevertheless, even if the school you are considering has an .edu website, always verify its legitimacy.

10. No federal aid availability

Often diploma mills will try to cover this up by offering their own “financing” or payment plans, which they may try to disguise as some kind of private loan. However, you will not be able to fill out a federal aid form for these schools, which is a big tell-tale sign of an illegitimate school.

What does a diploma mill look like?

diploma mill exampleAt precursory glance, many diploma mill sites look legit and professional. It takes a little bit of exploring to find out which ones are not real schools or degree programs. For instance consider the short list of diploma mills below. Note that they are also included in the oregonstudentaid.gov’s diploma mill list:

  • randford.org
  • belforduniversityonline.org
  • rochvilleuniversity.org
  • ashwooduniversity.net

Before even going to the websites, notice the actual website addresses themselves. Each of them is similar to, or a direct copy of a reputable university. Radford University is a real brick-and-mortar university in Radford, Virginia. The diploma mill site simply adds and “n” and uses a .org domain. Likewise with Bedford University or Bedford College in London, a highly reputable school, which was borrowed from to name the illegitimate site of BelfordUniversity.org. Ashwood College is also a real school in Australia, and Ashville University is also a real school, and Ashford University is a for-profit school in Iowa, although it has publicly announced being denied initial accreditation – however, it is a legitimate source of education. Also notice that all four of the above diploma mill sites use either .org or .net domains, instead of .edu.

The website of a diploma mill: How you can tell

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Take a look at the above website, randford.org. There are strong indications right on the home page that this website is not a legit online school. Some of the first paragraphs tell the visitor that many of their “life experience” degree programs and online degrees can be earned in as little as 30 days. Remember from the list above, that there is no such thing as a “life experience” degree, nor a degree that can be earned in a few weeks. The home page also emphasizes almost immediately that those with degrees consistently make more money and have more advancement opportunities.

Despite these tell-tale characteristics, other diploma mill websites may be sneakier at appearing legitimate, so it’s always best to explore the entire site before deciding whether a school is real or fake. One of the most consistent indicators of a diploma mill will be its tuition and fees page. On both the randford.org site and rochvilleuniversity.org, their tuition and fees web pages reveal their “flat rate” degrees. While “Rochville University” tries to address the “credit hour” rates, it still boils down to flat rate fees for all degree levels. Randford University is a bit more transparent, using the same flat rate for all degree levels. Real schools, even strictly online and distance learning schools – NEVER charge this way.

The Rochville University website claims to be accredited by two different agencies – the Board of Online Universities Accreditation and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation. It takes little effort to find out that both of these accreditation agencies are fake, nor listed on either the US. Department of Education or CHEA list of accrediting agencies.

There are plenty of other characteristics that identify all of the above websites as diploma mills, such as strange locations or mailing address, and degrees promised with little to no coursework, and in extremely short time periods. Any prospective student considering an online degree should conduct thorough research and validation of the school through proper education authority channels. Even a basic search of most diploma schools will reveal on the first page of results that they are not trustworthy, as multiple hits will come up that identify it as such. However, not all diploma mills are discovered right away. Even when they are publicly identified as illegitimate, those who run them can simply establish another site under a different school name.

The use of a fake degree in the workplace will result in termination and even prosecution in some cases. It is imperative for your own protection to investigate all online degree programs and distance learning trade schools.