What Is a Diploma Mill?

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Posted by: David Garcia September 05, 2023

Education is the latest sector of the economy to fall prey to widespread scams. Schemes, scams, and cynical manipulation have infiltrated education in a big way in the form of diploma mills.

Also called degree mills, these “organizations” are little more than flimsy fronts for corrupt actors trying to purloin hard-earned money from the hands of folks trying to improve their circumstances. From the outside, diploma mills can be hard to distinguish from legitimate higher education establishments. Learn how to spot diploma mills with the help of education verification and how they operate in our guide.

What Are Diploma Mills?

A diploma mill is an organization that presents itself as an accredited college or university that offers degrees and diplomas in exchange for coursework and money. Often, very little education is required to obtain these degrees, and these institutions lack accreditation – if they even offer courses at all.

Accreditation is the key factor in distinguishing between legitimate colleges, universities, and diploma mills. Sometimes a legitimate college can lose its accreditation, but it will still employ highly trained faculty, offer rigorous courses, and tender degrees only after comprehensive coursework is completed. Diploma mills, on the other hand, will never be accredited, and will very rarely feature any of the other qualities listed. 

Are Diploma Mills Legal?

The U.S. Department of Education has been aggressively pursuing the proprietors of so-called diploma mills for years. There is a comprehensive archive of information on diploma mills on the DEd website, which includes dedicated pages on other segments of this system of corrupt actors, including fake accrediting agenciesscholarship scams, and unaccredited institutions.

Unfortunately, diploma mills aren’t outright illegal. That’s because they can be hard to define. There are highly respected universities like Harvard or Princeton where serious education is recognized by the conferral of a degree. Then there are “universities” with no physical address, no faculty or staff, and no courses, which will still take your money in exchange for a “diploma.”

In between these two poles lies a vast gray area in which there might be a full staff but no classes, regular homework but poor evaluation, and accreditation but a shaky degree conferral process. 

Still, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does outlaw the misrepresentation of qualificationswherever currency is being exchanged. If you suspect that you’re “enrolled” in a diploma mill, or the existence of one recently came to your attention, the FTC would like to know.

How Do You Identify a Diploma Mill?

Nobody thinks they’d fall victim to a scam like a diploma mill. But the individuals perpetrating this manipulation have gotten more sophisticated. Modern diploma mills can be difficult to distinguish from legitimate colleges and universities. But run down this checklist, and if you check off more than two, you’re likely looking at a degree mill. 

Accreditation Information Can’t Be Found

In the United States, the higher education sector relies on a network of recognized independent agencies to perform evaluations and bestow accreditation accordingly. Monitored by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), accreditations confer higher education institutions with an official seal of approval. 

If you find that a university has an official CHEA and U.S. Department of Education-approved accreditation, you can rest assured that you’re looking at a legitimate institution. If you don’t see one, you’re likely looking at a degree mill. Even well-respected accredited institutions won’t necessarily list their accreditation on the front page of their websites. Thankfully, CHEA has compiled a database of all accredited postsecondary institutions and programs that you can peruse and search by key terms.

“Fast” and “Easy” Degrees

Illegitimate degrees are easy to spot in a professional background check. So make sure you’re pursuing a legitimate degree before you devote your time, energy, and money.

Degree mills have been known to advertise degree programs that take only a matter of months or even weeks to complete. No real college or university would advertise anything more than a simple certificate program that takes as little as months to complete.

Associate’s Degrees take a minimum of two years of coursework to achieve, so if you’re seeing advertisements for an “expedited” or “fast and easy” Bachelor’s degree program, you’re likely looking at a fake.

Suspicious Contact Information

Check the About section of the suspected institution’s website. You should be able to easily search the listed address and come up with images of a sprawling campus. Likewise, whatever listed phone number should patch through to the bustling office of a real university. You should be able to ask for admissions counselors, faculty liaisons, deans of academics, and more. 

If you can’t find an address or phone number, or the listed information takes you to strange places, steer clear of that “university.”

No Listed Faculty or Staff

Legitimate universities always list their faculty and staff on their websites. There are a number of reasons for this, including allowing prospective students to get in touch with professors they’d like to work with directly, and showing off competitive hires to attract more prospective students to apply. 

Degree mills won’t have any faculty or staff listed, because they don’t have any to list. 

Remember that real universities advertise themselves in subtle ways. They’ll never tell you that you can get your degree quickly, that it will be easy to get, or that you’ll be able to do everything yourself. College is hard – intentionally so. It takes a village to earn a single degree – teachers, staff, administration, librarians, cooks, custodians, and more. Colleges love to show off their robust support staff, so if you don’t see any listed, you aren’t in good hands. 

The Role of Background Checks in Identifying Diploma Mills

Education verification background checks play a huge role in identifying diploma mills. Professional background screeners are like detectives, specially trained to find the most accurate, honest, and up-to-date information on the job candidates they’re assigned to screen.

They will pull up any and all education records, and then they’ll analyze those records. The academic records from legitimate universities will likely look nothing like the “records” from degree mills, if they even respond to records requests in the first place. Background screening services provide a vital additional service in exposing degree mills to the harsh light of scrutiny.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Problems Do Diploma Mills Contribute To?

Diploma mills contribute to several problems, large and small. On a personal level, they can drain people’s finances while providing nothing of real value in return. This can greatly impact their ability to find a good job and provide for themselves.

On a broad, social level, their existence undermines our confidence in higher education systems. Now that thousands have been scammed out of their time and hard-earned money, rebuilding trust in the social fabric may take time.

Final Thoughts

Degree mills are a blight on our civic society. They use lies and manipulation to lure unsuspecting innocents into their grasp, where they exchange fake degrees for real money. 

These fake degrees can negatively impact individuals’ ability to get well-paying jobs post-graduation and cost tons of money in the short term.

Scoutlogic’s education verification services are one part of the battle against degree mills. Get in touch and see how ScoutLogic can help you today.

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