Falsely accredited online degree programs, or diploma mills, have been reported throughout the nation. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the term diploma mills refers to “companies that sell ‘degrees’ or certificates on the Internet without requiring the buyer to do anything more than pay a fee.” Passed off as rewards for life experience, these bogus degrees are awarded to students for a fee and, perhaps, a little course work. Thus, students searching for online courses or degrees should always check to see if an education provider is accredited and reputable.
Companies and employees alike have grown increasingly concerned about this phenomenon of false credentialing, as credibility and qualifications are two significant requirements in any field of study or employment. Falsified credentials allow untrained individuals to assume roles outside of their competency or qualification. Liability and accountability issues immediately arise, giving way to legal ramifications.
As more institutes of higher education go online, it is easier for these fictitious institutions to hide amongst the masses. As a result, students enrolled in or considering an online degree program need to be able to recognize the tell-tale signs of a diploma mill.
Be Aware of the Warning Signs
The FTC offers these clues to discovering false degree programs:
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The materials and requirements for an online degree program are the same as those used for a traditional degree program. Therefore, the amount of time required to complete the degree programs should be relatively similar. While distance learning courses often enjoy an accelerated format, they do not abridge any content or academic requirements. If a bachelor’s degree takes, on average, four years to complete, an online bachelor’s program should not take 9 to 12 months.
That Sounds Familiar. It is not uncommon for diploma mills to select names that closely resemble those of well-known institutions in order to stir up interest. The FTC has highlighted several instances of this occurrence, including the following:
- When an institution has a similar name to a well-known school, but is located in a different state, consider checking into its accreditation.
- If an institution appears to have a prestigious-sounding name, but is affiliated with a foreign country, verify the program’s credentials to be safe.
Fancy, but Phony Web sites. An institution’s Web site is always a good place to begin your search. While diploma mills are known for their impressive Web sites, there are often clues among the pages. The FTC and U.S. Department of Education offer some helpful hints for your search. According to their stipulations, you have discovered a diploma mill if:
- Tuition is not based on credit, course or semester, but rather on a “per-degree” basis.
- The degree has few or no requirements.
- The degree has unspecified requirements.
- The degree focuses on work or life experience rather than on online course meetings or course work.
- The school has undergone a name change or is a new institution.
It is also important to know that a “dot-edu” Web address does not confirm a school’s authenticity.
How to Verify an Institution’s Academic Accreditation
It is always a good policy to check an institution’s accreditation before enrolling in one of its online programs. Often, universities and colleges offer this information on their Web sites. However, do not be fooled. Several diploma mills claim to be “accredited” and create an agency’s name that sounds legitimate and official.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has developed a new database for tracking the accreditation of academic institutions. For more information, visit www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation (The U.S. Department of Education also asserts that there are a few legitimate institutions that have not yet pursued accreditation.)
You can also check if an accrediting agency is legitimate by searching the list of recognized national and regional accrediting agencies maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org
Due to the fact that new diploma mills and false accrediting agencies are cropping up all the time, no comprehensive list of diploma mills exists online. Nevertheless, the Oregon Student Assistance Commission’s Office of Degree Authorization does maintain a list of organizations that have been identified as diploma mills at www.osac.state.or.us/oda. The FTC also offers that an easy way to identify a diploma mill is to see if a local college or university would accept transfer credits from the institution.
Federal Trade Commission. (2005). Avoid fake-degree burns by researching academic credentials. Retrieved June 1, 2007, from http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/diplomamills.shtm