What are diploma mills?
Diploma mills are low-quality schools that crank out degrees to students who have not put in the appropriate amount of academic work to earn them. These operations are usually more interested in making money than they are in educating students. Aside from offering a poor education and requiring little to no actual course work from students, diploma mills also lack accreditation from a recognized accreditation agency, according to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). In some cases, diploma mills are actually scams, selling phony degrees to students from universities that do not actually exist, or worse, providing fraudulent degrees from schools that do exist so that dishonest people can lie on their resumes.
Degrees earned from diploma mills are not accepted in academia and are seldom accepted in the job market. This means that you will not be able to transfer any credits to a more reputable university, and that your resume will likely be thrown in the rejection pile. Employers can easily do a background check and verify that a job candidate attended a disreputable school. Steering clear of diploma mills will keep you from wasting your time and money on a worthless degree.
Do Your Research
The surest sign that an institution is a diploma mill is that it is not accredited by a recognized accreditation agency. Accreditation is a voluntary process that the majority of reputable schools undergo, where their educational standards, policies, practices, and school faculty are examined. Schools that meet a minimum set of requirements — established by the accrediting agency — earn accreditation. You can check if a college or university is accredited by entering the name of the university into the USDE's database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs. Another good resource for checking an institution's accreditation is the database maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an association dedicated to promoting quality education through the accrediting process. If a college or university does not turn up in these lists, a red flag should go up, and you should strongly consider whether you have come across a diploma mill. However, keep in mind that some good schools may not have accreditation, such as a new program or faith-based university. Therefore, do more research to see if your school of choice is one such institution if it is not accredited.
The Federal Trade Commission warns that diploma mills will often claim on their websites to be accredited. However, it's just as easy to tout phony accreditation as it is to make false claims of academic quality. Check out the USDE's list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies to make sure a school isn't simply making up a fake agency to dupe students.
The Marks of a Diploma Mill
Aside from being unaccredited, diploma mills are characterized by promises that seem too good to be true. For instance, many will claim to offer you a degree without requiring you to attend any classes, take any tests, or even study. The institution will often gloss over these essentials by saying it will accept credit for life experience or work experience. This is where things get tricky. After all, legitimate colleges do at times accept a certain amount of credit for proven life or work experience. However, the process at legitimate schools is limited, requires documentation and testing, and is never enough to add up to an entire degree program. If a school claims it can translate your life or work experience into an entire degree program or even the lion's share of a degree program, another red flag should go up.
Furthermore, be skeptical of schools that claim you can earn a degree in a few short weeks or months. While many legitimate schools offer accelerated programs, guaranteeing that you can earn a bachelor's degree in a mere few weeks or months is not realistic. Associate degrees typically take at least a year to complete, and even an accelerated bachelor's degree program will typically take at least 30 months to three years to meet all degree requirements. This ensures that you learn all that you need to learn in those programs, so be wary of any school that claims to reduce entire degree programs into a few short months.
Another sign that you're looking at a diploma mill is if the institution charges a flat fee for a degree, rather than charging per course, credit, or per semester, quarter, or module. Schools understand that some students may not complete their entire degree program, or that students may take more or fewer classes each semester or term than the term before. This is why schools charge students by the class or semester rather than a flat rate to keep things fair. Finally, the FTC warns consumers to watch out for "sound-alikes," or institutions that name themselves something similar to an accredited institution in an effort to sound more legitimate.