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How To Spot Fake Degress

by Melissa Portnoy

What is a diploma mill?

A diploma mill is a actually a business that makes a profit by disguising itself as a legitimate college, university, or school. A diploma mill (or "degree mill") will pose as a real university and rewards degrees without evaluating any (or very little) academic work from its "students." They make money by selling printed degrees and providing academic references and falsified transcripts to individuals who purchase degrees from them.

A degree mill sells varying levels of degrees, from bachelor's degrees to doctoral degrees. A degree mill also allows its customers to purchase academic honors (like summa cum laude). A diploma mill typically has two types of customers:

  • Individuals searching for a genuine academic program and are unaware that they are enrolling at a degree mill.
  • Individuals who are aware that they are committing fraud and want to build their credentials quickly for academic or professional reasons.

How do diploma mills get started?

Online education is fairly new to most postsecondary institutions, with schools constantly developing and revising its programs to suit today's students. With new programs being introduced to potential students everyday, it would be seemingly simple for an individual to create a Web site with a seemingly legitimate school, no matter how fake.

Unfortunately, the Internet can be a place where scams and counterfeit operations can target victims. So long as a diploma mill's Web site has convincing writing and appealing images, it stands to churn out fake degrees undetected. It is not difficult to register a Web site with a .edu domain name.

With access to: a quality color printer and fax; a phone number and email address; and good looking Web site, any individual can establish a diploma mill. Dr. John Bear is considered to be an expert in the field of distance learning, and his 2003 edition of Guide to Earning Nontraditional Degrees, unavoidably includes 481 phony schools.

Is there example of a diploma mill?

There are two kinds of diploma mills, those which offer low quality, specious programs or courses, and those that merely sell you a copy of a degree with your name on it.

It has been reported that Brian McNamee, a personal trainer for professional baseball athletes (including Roger Clemens), earned his doctoral degree from a diploma mill. The diploma mill is called Columbus University, and had operated out of many different states including Mississippi, Louisiana, and now Alabama.

It has been reported that Mr. McNamee was required to write a dissertation in order to complete his doctoral program, but that he had little to no interaction with any faculty member. On its Web site, Columbus University claims that it is "The Established Name in Distance Education" and also claims that it is accredited by the The Adult Higher Education Alliance. This is a fake accrediting agency.

The Adult Higher Education Alliance is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Dept. of Education's Web site lists several established, recognized accrediting agencies including the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) and Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET).

There are other indicators demonstrating Columbus University's illegitimacy.

If you look up the registration information of their Web site, scroll down to the section labeled "Whois Record." You'll find that they list a third party company rather than the mailing address on their home page. This is not typical for a legitimate educational provider. Most schools disclose their complete contact information and mailing addresses with their registration information. Diploma mills have every reason to hide and mask their location, because they sell fraudulent degrees.

Real or Fake?

Take our quiz and find out if you could spot which school is legitimate, and which school is a diploma mill!

How can I tell if a school is a diploma mill?

  • They often have names similar to well-known colleges or universities, but fail to mention an accrediting agency or name a fake accrediting agency.
  • The organization frequently changes addresses, sometimes moving from state to state.
  • Written materials typically include numerous spelling and grammatical errors, sometimes on the diploma itself.
  • Overemphasis on the speed and brevity with which someone can receive a degree (e.g. "Call now and have your degree shipped to you overnight!").
  • Degrees can be earned in far less time than normal (e.g. 27 days) or the diploma is printed with a specific backdate.
  • There is no selectivity in admissions, or any questions about previous test scores or detailed academic history.
  • No interaction with professors or faculty (e.g. only two emails are received from a professor).
  • Degree requirements are vague or unspecified, lacking class descriptions and without any mention of how many credit hours are required to complete a program.
  • Tuition and fees are typically on a per-degree basis.
  • Grade point average (GPA) and academic honors (e.g. Summa Cum Laude) can be specified at the time of purchase.

What's being done about these degree mills?

Unfortunately, fraudulent schools continue to spread and are increasingly sophisticated in their scams. These diploma mills survive by operating in states lack strict laws regarding school accreditation, such as California, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana. They assume identities of well-known schools, or market themselves as a religious organization.

Because of constitutional safeguards, the United States guarantees separation of church and state. Most states are reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches, including their right to grant degrees. Diploma mills take advantage of such a reluctance.

To further protect themselves and to take advantage of less rigorous laws, diploma mills often operate out of multiple political jurisdictions. They sell degrees only in other states or other countries. Many degree mills operate from England, selling fake degrees only to people in other countries, primarily the United States, Africa, and Asia.

It can sometimes be difficult to prove fraud in the case of a diploma mill. In some cases, a diploma mill may immunize itself from prosecution by being forthcoming about its business, fully acknowledging that it is a diploma mill. The individuals that buy degrees from this particular type of diploma mill are fully aware that they are getting a degree without having to complete any academic program. In this case, the diploma mill is argueably acting only as a business.

It is very risky to buy a fake degree, or claim to have a degree without having completed an accredited degree program. Consumers with bogus degrees are liable to find themselves embarrassed professionally, or even out of a job. The most severe consequence is having to face criminal charges. In Oregon, using a degree from an unlicensed institution to get a job or gain a promotion is illegal.

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