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Six Signs Your Online School is a Diploma Mill

Jul 31, 2007 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

A legitimate online school is just as rigorous as a traditional college.  But online education is still viewed with suspicion by some employers and educators.  That’s because fake schools, or “diploma mills,” give the entire industry a bad name.

There are two common types of diploma mills.  The first will simply mail you a degree for a fee of a few hundred dollars.  They sometimes ask to see your resume first, and will pretend to vet you for “life experience credit.” Of course, everybody who applies gets enough life experience credit to earn an entire degree.

The second type will actually require some work, but it will be minimal.  Your dissertation may be five pages long instead of fifty, and you’ll be able to earn a degree in months, not years.  These diploma mills are a bit more dangerous than the first type, because they more closely resemble legitimate schools.  However, there are still a few warning signs:

Lightning-Fast Degrees

It should take you four years to earn an undergraduate degree, two or three years to earn a Master’s degree, and another three to five—depending on the subject—to earn a online Ph.D. Many diploma mills claim you can earn degrees in months, not years.  Be cautious if a school you’re considering is making this claim. 

Bogus Accreditation

Legitimate schools are reviewed by accreditation agencies: third-party nonprofits that hold schools to rigorous standards.  There are six regional accreditors, and it’s best to go to a school that lists one of these as its accrediting agency. 

Many online schools are accredited by one of a long list of national agencies in the U.S. instead.  National accreditors are not always considered as rigorous as regional accreditors, but they are still legitimate. 

The Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintains a database of legitimately accredited schools.  You can also check our list of regional, national, and known illegitimate accreditors. If the accrediting agency listed by your school is in the third category—or if it isn’t on this list at all—it’s probably a diploma mill.

They Charge per Degree

Legitimate schools charge per credit hour, per course, or per semester.  Diploma mills often charge by degree.  Some offer discounts if you order a second degree, which a legitimate school would never do. A small handful of legitimate schools do offer programs for a flat fee, but it’s rare.

See Also: Online College and University Reviews

It’s Easy To Get Credit For Life Experience

Some diploma mills will ask you to send in your resume, and will give you almost unlimited credits for life experience.  In some cases, you can get all the credits you need for a degree through life experience.  Just pay the school’s fees—usually a few hundred dollars or so—and they’ll mail you a degree.

This is tricky, because legitimate schools offer life experience credits as well.  But it’s very rare to be able to earn your entire degree through life experience credit—and impossible with a post-graduate degree. 

In addition, they’ll ask to see more than your resume to prove your competence.  Legitimate schools will ask you to assemble a prior learning portfolio, write personal essays, take standardized tests, or undergo an interview process to determine whether you’ve really earned those life experience credits. 

The Work Required Is Minimal

If you’re required to read a few articles, write a few simple papers, and hand in a five-page dissertation at the end, it’s not likely you’ve learned enough to earn a legitimate degree. 

The School Is Located In A State With Little Regulation

Some states make it easier for diploma mills to operate than others.  Alabama, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming are all common locations for diploma mills, because of loopholes in local law or lax regulation.  Of course, there are many legitimate schools located in these states as well.  But if your school looks suspicious already, check to see if it’s based in one of these states.  If it is, it may be a bad sign.

There’s no question that diploma mills make all online schools look bad.  The Internet has made it much easier for non-traditional students to earn degrees while balancing other responsibilities, but it’s also made it possible for scams to thrive.  Be wary when investigating any online school, and remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Dr. Bruce A. Johnson Over a year ago

Hello Jennifer:

This is an important topic for potential online students.

What is your opinion of the pending Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act? Do you believe this will be enough to curb the problem?

Are you surprised that people are still purchasing degrees from diploma mills? It seems to me that someone would only do this out of desperation. Perhaps they need a job and one of the minimum qualifications is a degree. However, it also seems likely that the person will eventually get caught. Do you agree?

Dr. J

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