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How to Spot a Diploma Mill

By Amber Hilton,
Staff Writer

When researching a school, a good question to ask yourself is,

A diploma mill is an unaccredited institution that basically "sells" useless credentials. If you fall prey to such a scam, you might be stuck with an expensive piece of paper that won't do you any good in the job market. In some cases, you could even be committing fraud by trying to pass off such a credential as a legitimate degree. Deceptive by their very nature, diploma mills aren't always easy for the layperson to spot, but the going gets easier when you know what to look out for.

Tell-tale signs of a diploma mill

When researching a school, a good question to ask yourself is, "Does it sound too good to be true?" If it does, you might be looking at a diploma mill. Diploma mills are notorious for promising unrealistically short degree completion times and requiring little or no actual work in exchange for a degree. For example, if you've done your research, you know it typically takes two years of hands-on courses to earn an associate degree in nursing. Thus, if a school is offering a nursing degree that can be completed in a few days or weeks with little or no coursework required, you're likely looking at a diploma mill. However, this doesn't mean you should yell "fraud" anytime you come across an online or accelerated program; rather, it's typically only the extreme examples that apply, and there will likely be other signs to help tip you off.

Other tell-tale signs of a diploma mill include websites that charge flat fees for degrees rather than on a pay-per-credit structure. Also be wary of schools that offer discounts for "enrolling" in more than one degree program. Little student-instructor interaction and an emphasis on credits for life experience are also red flags. If a school's website or literature offers a disclaimer stating that a program isn't available for residents of a certain state, there's a good chance you could be looking at a diploma mill that has been banned by a particular state or states. Legitimate schools, with the exception of some community colleges, usually accept applicants from any state. Any school website that looks amateurish or doesn't end in the standard ".edu" should also raise suspicion.

Known diploma mills

Some known diploma mills include Breyer State University, Canyon College, Stratford Career Institute and the Esoteric Theological Seminary, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. Atlantic International University, another diploma mill, is a tricky one because it's sometimes confused with Florida International University or American Intercontinental University, both legitimate schools. University of Berkley, a known diploma mill, is also particularly deceptive, because it's so similar to the University of California-Berkeley, Berkeley College and the Berklee College of Music, all accredited and valid schools.

How to verify accreditation

The above list is just a sampling of some popular diploma mills, so if you're wary of a school, it's a good idea to do some more digging before you pay any enrollment fees. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website, a service of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), offers a College Navigator tool that allows you to search for legitimate schools. If a school isn't listed with the NCES, you have reason to be suspicious. You might also verify a school's accreditation via the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). However, keep in mind that not all unaccredited schools are diploma mills; for example, some schools choose to operate under state licensure or registration instead. You can also keep an eye out for diploma mills that claim accreditation by a fake accrediting agency by consulting the USDE's approved list.

Last edited: April 11, 2013, 2:14 pm EST
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