Choosing and enrolling in a college degree program, whether online or traditional, can be confusing. There is so much information out there that it can be hard for students and their families to know what information is relevant to them, much less to distinguish true information from misleading statements designed to trick students. Unfortunately, while there are many legitimate and accredited online college degree programs that can provide students with an excellent distance learning education, there are also diploma mills that charge students for a worthless degree without ever providing them with the knowledge and skills to achieve their goals. Don’t let the fear of being cheated by a diploma mill deter you from furthering your education online. Instead, know what a diploma mill does and how to make sure no one takes advantage of you.
Defining Diploma Mills
In the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the United States Department of Education considers diploma mills to be entities that meet two requirements: they charge money for a degree, certificate, or diploma while requiring little or no study, and they are not accredited by any established and recognized agency. Accreditation is one of the most important ways you can be sure an online degree program is legitimate. Essentially, consider any unaccredited school that puts a higher priority on getting money from you than on providing quality education as a potential diploma mill or degree mill, and look elsewhere for your education.
Spotting a Diploma Mill
A common element among many many bogus colleges and universities is the schools have no admissions standards whatsoever. If students can pay tuition, they’re admitted, usually no questions asked. Many times, these so-called colleges and universities will also allow students to get credit for their life experience and the information the student has on his or her resume. The school has no way of knowing if these experiences would stand up to any academic tests.
This fast-route-to-graduation is different than some legitimate college programs that allow students to graduate in less time than normal. According to Northeastern University, most legitimate accelerated degree programs are as much or more work than their traditional counterparts. Additionally, legitimate schools also allow students to test out of classes via legitimate means, like the CLEP test. In each of these cases, the student is still held up to a rigorous academic standard, which isn’t what’s happening with the diploma mills schools’ fast-track to graduation schemes.
“If you’re getting a degree without doing any work, chances are you’re dealing with a diploma mill. Legitimate colleges or universities — including online schools — require substantial course work and interaction with professors.” –Federal Trade Commission
Another thing prospective students can look for is complaints. Do former students complain about the quality of the education, about not being able to get a job after graduation or some other red flag issue? Do they lodge these complaints on sites, like the Better Business Bureau? Prospective students should pay attention to these issues.
Diploma mill schools also tend to pressure prospective students into signing up. Students may receive multiple calls from admissions counselors, pressuring them to sign up for classes. Speaking of finances, these schools often ask students to pay exorbitant amounts of money upfront. They want students to make a huge financial commitment before the student even knows anything about the school. Finally, do the schools in question promise students a degree after the students pay a large sum of money? In other words, can students buy a degree for a mere $6,000 or whatever, without ever having to step foot into a classroom?
How to Find a Legitimate School
Diploma mills make many alternatives, but legitimate programs look bad. Unfortunately, after a student has been burned by a bogus program, it’s easy for that student to assume that all alternative programs fall into the diploma mill category. Here’s a good example: Many diploma mills offer their educational wares via distance or online education. This makes many people wary of pursuing legitimate online or distance education degrees, even though such a program would benefit the students in question.
In light of this, would-be students should also be able to spot the signs of a legitimate school. Here are a few signs to look for.
One element that potential students can look for is regional accreditation. Legitimate schools in the United States receive their accreditations from organizations, like the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students who are in doubt can learn more about accrediting bodies in the United States at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
As a consequence, most schools that receive accreditation can also receive federal financial aid. This, in turn, allows them to offer students federal financial aid benefits, like Pell Grants. By the same token, the members of the school’s faculty should have also received their degrees from a legitimate college or university. Prospective students can read about a faculty member’s background on a CV or the university’s website.
Additionally, many well-known universities have online programs. If the school has a brick-and-mortar facility somewhere and it offers online degrees, the degrees that come from these schools’ online programs are likely legitimate. Even Harvard University offers legitimate online degrees. Students who graduate from these programs receive a diploma from Harvard.
That said, many of these schools have names that almost seem legitimate, but something about the names seems off. For example, the school might be called the Yale Institute of Technological Studies. The hope here is that students believe that this school is affiliated with Yale University in some way. Diploma mill schools draw students in this way, so students should beware. When in doubt, they can call the legitimate university in question and inquire about online and distance programs.
It’s also helpful to note that sites, like the U.S. News & World Report, actually rate online programs. Readers of the news site learn which colleges and universities offer the best online degree programs. Some of the programs that U.S. News rates are because they offer the best overall experience for online learners. Others are rated for topic-specific reasons. For example, U.S. News ranks the top online MBAs, CIS, education, nursing, and engineering degrees to name but a few. By the same token, other programs at the same schools may not rate as highly on U.S. News’ lists.
Additionally, students can read online reviews to see which schools have worthwhile programs. Sites like Rate My Prof, for example, tell students about a prospective professor and a bit about the class and the school in question. Students can also take a look at the school’s website URL. Is there a .edu at the end of it? If not, it may not be legitimate. It is also likely that a legitimate online program has an actual physical address. Many diploma mills don’t. They might have a PO Box somewhere but no actual address. Finally, another question that students can ask is if the school in question has legitimate student services. These services could include access to a school’s library, tech support, and academic advising.
Diploma Mills Cheat Students in More Ways than One
The money you pay to a degree mill has real value, but the certificate you get in exchange for it does not. It is just a piece of paper. Without being held to the high standards that accredited schools must meet, the degree you receive from a diploma mill does not demonstrate any kind of proficiency. Employers and other, established schools typically will not recognize it. Such a degree is unlikely to help you begin a new career, secure a better job, or stand out to earn a promotion.
There’s another way that diploma mills cheat students, too. Perhaps a potential employer won’t research the school and discover that it is not accredited, but while a degree from a diploma mill might help you find a job, it won’t help you excel at or keep that job. The degree may look good on your résumé, but it’s ultimately the knowledge and skills that you learn during your education that allows you to achieve success later in your career. You deserve a real education, not just a meaningless certificate.
Getting a degree without having to study may sound especially appealing to busy students struggling to balance work, family, and other obligations. However, some opportunities simply are too good to be true. While getting an education from a legitimate, accredited school requires you to invest more money and time in your studies, it will also help you succeed in ways a degree from a diploma mill cannot.
Fortunately, most diploma mills come with a few defining characteristics that make them easier for students to spot (and therefore, to avoid). Many of these schools have bogus accreditations. The schools’ websites often have weird URLs, and the school itself may have a name that seems legitimate, though something may be off. The same can be said of the school’s name.
Another sign of a diploma mill school is high-pressure sales tactics. Along the same lines, school officials at diploma mills require students to pay very large sums of money upfront.
Finally, a diploma mill may not be able to offer students federal financial aid because the school doesn’t have regional accreditation. Students who are aware of the signs of a diploma mill are better equipped to avoid it.