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Beware of Diploma Mills


The commonly-accepted definition of “diploma mill” is an unaccredited for-profit company that sells fake academic degrees and certificates for a fee. Some observers estimate that degree mills may be a half-billion dollar industry or more, worldwide, with hundreds of programs located right here in the United States.

Most military members and veterans use GI Bill benefits to attend school – so they have a bit of built-in protection: The Department of Veterans Affairs will not pay GI Bill benefits for schools that have not gone through some kind of accreditation process, although the Bill has been liberalized in recent years to allow for more trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

Diploma mills are tremendously destructive: They dilute the good reputations of hard-working students who busted their tails for their diplomas. They hurt employers who hire “graduates” of diploma mills, assuming that they have the skills they promised on their resumes and in job interviews. They hurt legitimate learning institutions which invest a great deal of money in their professors and instructors. And lastly, they hurt the reputations of those who are caught using diploma mills.

Not every unaccredited institution is a diploma mill. The accreditation process takes time and resources. Some new schools are still going through the process. Other schools simply don’t fit neatly into the categories recognized by the major accreditation bodies. These schools will still demand a good deal of coursework and/or practical real world experience through internships, practicums and other arrangements with the private sector.

Some unaccredited schools qualify for GI Bill benefits by coordinating efforts with a local accredited college. For example, some flight schools will have an arrangement with a local accredited college to provide the ground-school and classroom portions of programs in aviation safety and aviation management, while retaining the actual flight school piece themselves.

Legal Issues

Some states, including Oregon, actually make it a crime to present a degree mill diploma as an actual diploma. In Oregon, your first offence will get a cease-and-desist order from the state. The second offense will result in a fine. Other states that restrict the use of diploma mill certificates include Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, North Dakota and Texas.

Is your college on the bad list?

The State of Oregon is particularly aggressive in fighting diploma mills. The Oregon Department of Education has published this list of known or suspected diploma mills, the presentation of whose diplomas as legitimate are prohibited within the state. Many of these institutions are located outside the country. Some have been closed in one state by court order, only to pop back open in another friendlier jurisdiction.

Michigan at one time actually tracked over 600 degree mills, but gave up on trying to keep their list updated.

Identifying a Diploma Mill

Be sure to research your college options carefully. To avoid giving away your hard-earned money to a degree mill, look for some combination of these characteristics.

1. Inclusion on the State of Oregon list of degree mills.

2. Lack of accreditation by a known accrediting body. Note that scammers have been known to create fake accreditation organizations and claim accreditation by them. To circumvent this particular fraud, look for the school on the Department of Education’s database of accredited institutions.

3. Find out if the Department of Veterans Affairs will grant GI Bill benefits to attend the school – even if you don’t plan to use your GI Bill benefits. If the VA won’t fund it, that’s a yellow flag right there, at best.

4. Names that are similar to, but not the same as, legitimate institutions of higher learning. For example: Cal Southern University is very similar to California Southern University. Cal Southern is a bogus degree mill, according to the State of Oregon. California Southern University is very much a legitimate distance learning school – and accredited by the Distance Education Training and Learning Council, which is also a nationally-recognized accrediting body.

But the legitimate school’s website is www.calsouthern.edu. This confused numerous students who had enrolled in the “Cal Southern” diploma mill, rather than the actual legitimate distance learning education institution.

The damage done to both the original reviewer and to the hardworking students and graduates of California Southern University is obvious.

5. Lack of contact with professors. Legit schools put you in regular and direct contact with professors, who are themselves graduates of recognized programs.

6. Lack of work required. Diploma mills have been known to lead with advertisements such as “earn a degree in a week.” This is patently absurd. Legitimate degrees take years to earn and require significant time and effort.

7. Scholarships available for no good reason. One college we looked at, Corllins – identified by the State of Oregon as a known diploma mill, states that applicants may be eligible for a scholarship that covers up to 90 percent of their tuition. It is unclear who funds this scholarship.

8. Excessive credit for “life experience.” Good schools may grant a few credits here and there for life experience. And some may grant significant credit for demanding military training where the instructional program is known and recognized within the industry. But these are very specific programs. For example, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute grants up to 29 credit hours for graduates of the Navy Nuclear Power School. Not a whole Bachelor of Science degree!

DegreeAdvice.com had this to say about Corllins University:

The reality of this statement by Corllins is odd. You see, all they actually offer is Life Experience Degrees. They pretend to be so much more, but good luck attempting to enroll in a traditional online course. It's just not there. They don't offer it. They are the epitome of fake advertising. All of their accreditation's [sic] are figments of their own imagination and creation. Some have their own websites and some don't.

One thing that will stand out like a sore at [sic] thumb to any employer is the following -- Corllins University offers doctorate level degrees in nursing for a few hundred dollars -- based on life experiences. Furthermore, to receive your doctorate in nursing, all you need to show is that you were a receptionist in a dentist's office for three months. At least, that was my experience when I used this fake job to apply. I was awarded my doctorate in nursing and all I had to do was pay.

9. Obvious typographical errors and English language usage errors on the Website and on marketing materials. Real schools are careful about their academic reputations and proof their materials carefully.

10. Questionable marketing methods. Legitimate schools tend not to use gray-hat marketing and advertising methods, such as low-rent email spam or pop-up or pop-under web page ads.

What to do if you have been defrauded

If you knowingly do business with a diploma mill, you deserve to lose your money. But if you were taken in by a scam, here are some steps you can take:

Demand a refund. In writing. You might not get it. But some institutions might pay you to go away rather than make trouble for their business model or bring unwanted attention from state law enforcement agencies or federal regulators. At the very least, you initiate a paper trail.

Complain to the Better Business Bureau. This can help warn future students away from the school.

File a civil suit. If you were damaged and you can prove it – and you weren’t a willing party to the fraud – you may be able to get a judgment or settlement to help mitigate any financial damages you incurred. The school might also be subject to a punitive judgment, over and above your damages, to deter other diploma mill operators. Or the school might settle favorably with you to avoid the risk of a large judgment.

Contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov. This is the federal agency responsible for policing the diploma mill industry. While there are no federal laws that specifically address diploma mills, the FTC enforces laws against consumer fraud more generally. This is the go-to agency if the fraud occurred across state lines. For in-state cases, start with your state attorney general’s office.

Note: Attempts to contact two institutions listed as diploma mills on the Oregon database – Corllins University and Canyon College -- to hear their point of view were unsuccessful. Neither institution answered their phone. Canyon College’s voicemail box was full. Corllins College’s phone number put us on hold for a few minutes and eventually the system hung up. This is true even though Corllins University’s website claims its offices are open 24/7. We will update the story if something changes.

Both schools have sites that are easily locatable via a Web search. We have elected not to link to them, so as not to assist in boosting their search rankings.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s page warning consumers against diploma mills.

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