It is a criminal offense in Australia to issue university degrees without authorization through an act of federal or state parliament. In India, the only way to obtain a legal degree is through a university that is empowered by an Act of the Parliament to confer or grant degrees. In Germany, the Ministry of Education must authorize any institution for higher learning’s validity. In the U.S., accreditation is a peer review process [PDF] that does not require government authorization. Is it any wonder that the U.S. remains the focus for an industry that has accrued at least $200 million
to $500 million through bogus degree offerings?
Diploma mills represent a thriving industry where individuals can purchase
a degree without undergoing rigorous undergraduate or graduate academic work.
Although this business seems to have blossomed overnight, diploma mills have
existed in the U.S. for over
a century. What, exactly, is a degree or diploma mill, why do they remain
successful, and how can you protect yourself against these illegitimate businesses?
What is a Degree Mill?
A degree or diploma mill is an organization that awards academic degrees and
diplomas to “students” in exchange for money, but official accrediting
bodies [PDF] do not recognize the degrees. Although this business isn’t
new, the Internet has offered a profitable venue for their offerings. Today,
Web sites abound with stories about individuals who tested their ability to acquire
degrees for as little as $25 for a bachelor’s degree and for as much as several
thousand dollars for a doctorate.
Some of these degree mills may offer seemingly legitimate coursework, but the
academics involved are questionable. These fake universities often advertise
in legitimate and respected publications, an activity that adds to the institution’s
perceived quality. For instance, Columbia State University, which supposedly
was located in Louisiana, advertised in the Economist
magazine, but the school was shut down in 1999 after it was discovered that
orders for degrees were forwarded to a California office where “admissions
officers” fielded calls and mailed out thousands of Columbia State Diplomas.
Louisiana officials estimated the school took in as much as $1
million per month while in operation.
On the other side of this accreditation coin, unaccredited institutions that
allow legitimate academic work and degrees also exist; however, since these organizations
are not accredited, the degrees granted by these institutions will be worthless unless they are approved by state
agencies such as the ODA (Office
of Degree Authorization) in Oregon. State laws under which such institutions
are approved vary from state to state, so some employers and other universities
may not recognize these unaccredited qualifications no matter how difficult
the courses or how well the student performed.
Why Do Degree Mills Remain Active?
Little has been done to crack down on diploma mills since the FBI’s Operation
DIPSCAM ceased operations in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the ongoing
proliferation of these degrees can make all degrees suspect, especially when
accredited degrees are obtained from smaller colleges outside the Ivy League
mainstream. These false degrees also cast a sordid light onto any online degree
Lack of persecution is one reason why diploma mills remain active. Various
other reasons account for the continuation of these operations, from the degree
recipients’ fear of exposure to a degree mill’s ability to move about undetected.
Additionally, these fake colleges will assume names that sound familiar and
they often will claim accreditation by a fake accrediting agency to attract
more students to their degree programs and to make them appear more legitimate.
Despite lack of acknowledgement by accrediting parties, people continue to
knowingly or unknowingly participate in these programs. Unfortunately, the degree
recipients continue to offer their credentials as legitimate documents for employment
because federal and state laws in most states remain lax about this issue.
According to the Yale
Daily News, “nearly 500 senior federal employees [are] listing diploma mill
degrees among their qualifications, many of whom have top-secret security clearance
and remain in those jobs today.”
What Can You Do?
As distance study and online universities become more popular, the number of
organizations that offer fake degrees may increase to take advantage of the
cover provided by legitimate educational institutions. To make sure that you
do everything to protect yourself from a financial mistake and educational fraud,
you can follow the 15 suggestions offered below:
- Is the accreditation agency legitimate? Although the government
isn’t involved with accrediting an institution, it is involved with listing
the accrediting agencies for various degrees. You can compare your chosen
college’s claims against this
list to learn if your institution carries legitimate accreditation.
- Is the college accredited? The CHEA (Council for Higher
Education Accreditation) is an association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges
and universities and recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting
organizations. Check their list
to learn about legitimate accrediting agencies. You can also search for accredited
institutions through the CHEA
- Is the college recognized by the state where you reside and/or work?
Depending upon the state in which you reside and/or the state where you want
to work, you might check on state laws regarding diploma mills. Oregon pushes
the harshest laws for both diploma mills and for the people who use those
degrees to gain employment. But you might use that fake degree to get a job
in Florida. You can check states that enforce laws and those that are lax
at the Oregon
site. But, you might check with other state education sites to learn more.
- Can you obtain a degree for ‘life experience’? Watch out
for a college that offers a degree for your “life experience,” even
if you lack a previous degree. Some colleges legitimately offer limited credits
for life and/or work experience, especially for undergraduate degrees, but
they don’t offer an entire degree based upon those attributes. One exception
to this rule includes Thomas Edison State College
in New Jersey. This publicly funded distance learning facility offers associate’s
or bachelor’s degrees through a combination
of previous life, career, and educational experiences and qualified examinations.
The legitimate Middle States Association of
Colleges and Schools accredits this institution. Beyond this, you will
be hard pressed to gain credits for life or work experience in a master’s
or doctoral degree program under any circumstance.
- Can you gain admittance with little more than a valid credit card?
Avoid any college that requires a valid credit card for admittance, especially
if your previous academic record, grade point average history and test scores
are deemed irrelevant.
- Are you billed for one flat payment? If that college degree
requires a flat payment up front, you may lose out on your money and your
degree as that organization could take your money and disappear without sending
that sheepskin. Legitimate universities charge per credit or per course tuition
and fees that are based upon your choice of courses for upcoming quarters
or semesters. Most legitimate colleges also offer payment options.
- Can you get a quick turnaround on that diploma? If you
are offered a degree within a few days, weeks, or even a few months, you’ve
been scammed. Rapid turnaround is key for profit, so diploma mills usually
don’t hold onto their students for any length of time.
- Is that online university properly accredited? If the online
university that you want to attend tells you that online universities cannot
be accredited, they’re wrong. At OEDb, our database only lists accredited online universities.
- Does the faculty exist, and what are their credentials? Check
out the faculty. If one doesn’t exist, then leave the site immediately. If
you find a faculty listing, check their degrees to discover whether they attended
- Is the college office located in a foreign country? If
the university offers online degrees solely in the U.S., but the office is
located in a foreign county, don’t be fooled into sending money. Although
some of these sites appear credible and although they might advertise heavily,
they might be run by organizations located in countries that lack any accreditation
system. Usually colleges that have foreign offices also maintain foreign campuses.
- Are you required to attend classes on campus or online?
Legitimate colleges require attendance, even if it’s only online.
- Is the college recruiter chasing you? If a college is aggressively
pursuing you after one inquiry, that college may not be legitimate. Accredited
colleges don’t use spam or high-pressure telemarketing to market themselves
to prospective students.
- Did the college advertise through spam or pop-ups? If the
school caught your attention through an unsolicited email or pop-up ad, it
may be a diploma mill. Legitimate institutions, including distance-learning
programs, usually won’t advertise through spam or pop-ups.
- Does the college maintain a “real” campus? Check
the campus location on Google Maps and
use the “Satellite” option to find the campus. Some operations will
fail to provide any information about a campus or business location and will
provide a post office box, but others might use bogus photographs to push
a legitimate campus presence. First, an accredited institution will always
provide a street address. Secondly, a legitimate campus layout or map should
match the one you see on Google Maps Satellite maps. If it doesn’t, you might
call the college to find out why they don’t show up.
- Have others made complaints against that college? Check
with the Better Business Bureau for complaints
about the university in question. The BBB registers complaints about online
degree mills, so they can tell you if the college in question has been listed
If you feel that you’ve been scammed by a diploma mill, or if you recognize a
college that appears to fill all the attributes of this business, you can file
a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related
complaints into Consumer Sentinel,
a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement
agencies in the U.S. and abroad. This is another good resource that you can check
before you send money to that university.
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