A diploma mill is a company that awards unaccredited degrees and provides either an inferior education or no education at all. If you're considering attending an online school, learn as much about diploma mills as you can. This article will teach you how to spot them, how to avoid them, and how to take action if you've been a victim of a diploma mill's false advertising.
The Difference Between Unaccredited Programs and Diploma Mills
If you want your degree to be accepted by employers and other schools, your best bet is to enroll in a school accredited by one of the six regional accreditors. Your degree may still be considered acceptable if it is from a school accredited by another organization recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), such as the Distance Education Training Council.
Being accredited by an agency approved by the USDE or CHEA adds legitimacy to the school. However, not all unaccredited schools can be considered "diploma mills." Some new schools are undergoing the lengthy process required to receive accreditation. Other schools have chosen not to seek formal accreditation because they do not want to follow outside regulations or because they do not believe it is necessary for their organization.
In order for a school to be considered a diploma mill it must award degrees with little or no work required.
The Two Types of Diploma Mills
There are thousands of fake schools in the billion dollar diploma mill industry. However, most diploma mills fall into one of two categories:
Diploma mills that openly sell degrees for cash - These "schools" are straight-up with their clients. They offer customers a degree for cash. Both the diploma mill and the recipient know that the degrees are illegitimate. Many of these schools do not operate under a single name. Instead, they let clients select the name of any school they choose.
Diploma mills that pretend to be real schools - These companies are more dangerous. They pretend that they offer legitimate degrees. Students are often allured by promises of life experience credit or fast-track learning. They may have students do minimal work, but they usually award degrees in a very short amount of time (a few weeks or a few months). Many students "graduate" from these diploma mills thinking that they have earned a real degree.
Diploma Mill Warning Signs
You can find out if a school is accredited by an organization approved by the Department of Education by searching an online database. You should also keep an eye out for these diploma mill warning signs:
- Prospective students are bombarded with extreme promises about the degree program.
- Students are given one bill for the degree instead of being charged tuition for each class or credit hour.
- The school's website has no phone number.
- The school's address is a P.O. Box or apartment number.
- Promotional materials focus heavily on credit for life experience.
- The school does not have a .edu web address.
- There are no names of deans, directors, or professors on the website.
- The school's name is very similar to the name of a traditional, well-known school.
- Degrees are awarded in a very short period of time - only a few weeks or months.
- The school claims to be accredited by an organization that is not listed as an accreditor approved by the Department of Education.
Diploma Mills and the Law
Using a diploma mill degree to get a job could lose you your job, and your respect, in the workplace. Additionally, some states have laws that limit the use of diploma mill degrees. In Oregon, for example, prospective employees must inform employers if their degree is not from an accredited school.
What to Do if You've Been Tricked by a Diploma Mill
If you've been deceived by a diploma mill's false advertising, immediately request a refund of your money. Send a registered letter to the company's address explaining the deception and asking for a full refund. Make a copy of the letter you send for your own records. Chances are low that they'll send the money back, but mailing the letter will provide you with documentation you may need in the future.
File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Filing will help warn other potential students about the diploma mill school. It takes just a few minutes and can be done completely online.
You should also file a complaint with your state's attorney general office. The office will read complaints and may choose to investigate the diploma mill school.
List of Diploma Mills and Unaccredited Schools
It is difficult for any organization to put together a complete list of degree mills because many new schools are created each month. It is also difficult for organizations to consistently tell the difference between a diploma mill and a school that is simply unaccredited.
Oregon's Student Assistance Commission maintains the most comprehensive list of unaccredited schools (off-site link). However, it is not an exhaustive list. Be aware that the schools listed are not all necessarily diploma mills. Also, a school should not be considered legitimate just because it is not on the list.