Earning a college degree, whether through a traditional or online program of study, isn’t easy. It takes time, hard work and a good deal of financial expense. Because the Internet is full of scams, it’s even more important for online students than for students of traditional programs to make sure they aren’t putting time and money into a diploma mill masquerading as a real college or university.

Diploma Mills

Unfortunately, not all college degree programs provide a real education. Those that merely take your money in exchange for a piece of paper, rather than actually educating you, are called diploma mills. A degree from a diploma mill won’t help you reach your career goals.

The U.S. Department of Education identifies a few warnings students can watch out for when trying to determine if an online degree program is legitimate, or if it’s just a diploma mill. For one thing, even taking courses online can’t substantially decrease the amount of time it will take your to earn a degree from a legitimate school. Programs that promise degrees within a few months of study are not legitimate. Virtually all legitimate colleges charge tuition based on the number of courses or semester hours a student enrolls in, rather than a flat rate for earning a degree. If the program seems to require little or no actual coursework, it really is too good to be true. Finally, a diploma mill won’t be accredited by the right agencies – but that doesn’t mean all claims of accreditation are reliable.

Accreditation Mills

Diploma mills are one reason why accreditation of online college degree programs matter. Determining whether an online college degree program is accredited isn’t always easy, at least according to U.S. News & World Report. Just as there are diploma mills awarding students bogus or worthless degrees, there are also “accreditation mills.” These are agencies with official-sounding but made-up names that can deceive students into thinking a school is nationally or regionally accredited when it really is not.

Often, students take claims of accreditation at face value when they really must dig a little deeper to ensure accreditation. Students should research the accrediting agency listed and make sure that it is recognized by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. If not, students should reconsider attending such a school, because the degrees they earn may be worth little in the eyes of licensing agencies and potential employers.

With a huge demand and the potential for lucrative earnings, some scammers view higher education as a big business. When diploma mills trade you a degree without an education for a big chunk of money, you’re paying a lot of money for a worthless piece of paper. That’s why it’s important to make sure that any college program you attend is legitimate, or that it will provide you with a quality education and a degree that will be respected in the workforce.