How to Spot a Diploma Mill

This article is continued from Common Questions and Concerns about Online Degrees, and will help you to spot a fraudulent online college.

A degree mill is a bogus university usually 'accredited' by a fake agency whose sole purpose is to sell you a diploma without any sort of academic requirements. There are accredited distance learning programs that offer real online degrees, but a diploma mill exists only to steal your money and leave you with a wholly worthless piece of paper.

To help protect yourself, go through these 7 steps with every online program you are considering:

  1. Check accreditation - If the online college is not accredited by one of the six regional accreditation agencies, you are dealing with a diploma mill. Many will claim accreditation, and even cite official-sounding associations as their proof. But before trusting it, make sure the agency they cite is approved by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Also, some diploma mills will claim that online programs cannot receive accreditation. It's a lie, and all legitimate distance learning colleges have official recognition by the CHEA.
  2. No admissions requirements - If your application consists only of your name, address, and credit card number, you are dealing with a degree mill. Real online colleges will require a high school transcript, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, essays, and everything else a physical college also requires.
  3. You get a degree for your 'work experience' - Many real online universities will give some credit for career experience, but the process of turning your resume into college credit is complex and often have very limiting caps. If you're promised a degree solely from your non-academic history, you're probably dealing with a diploma mill.
  4. You are promised a diploma in xx days/weeks/months - A real online college will take an unknown amount of time to complete based on how many units you take per 'semester' and how much credit you have going in. If you are promised a degree in a flat time period (typically 30 days), you're probably dealing with a degree mill.
  5. You are asked to pay one lump sum - Real distance learning programs do not charge a single fee, but rather bill you per unit or per class.
  6. Check the Better Business Bureau (BBB) - If a search at the Better Business Bureau website of your state reveals many complaints about the online program, you may be dealing with a diploma mill. But even if you're not, do you really want to rely on a school with so many complaints?
  7. Information seems to be missing - Real online colleges will display academic information prominently, such as the classes that they offer, their faculty, and their accreditation. If you can't find this information, it's probably not a real university.

Don't be fooled by bogus degree mills. Most will have impressive websites, great advertising, flashy graphics, and persuasive language. If you feel like you are being 'sold' on something, it's probably because you are. Always take the time to confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate online college before handing over your money. Double-checking accreditation is always mandatory, even if it seems that the online university is trustworthy.

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Is Kaplan University a diploma mill school? I want to earn my ba in psych through them and eventually attend law school but i don't know if my ba will be accepted by a law school from kaplan.

- alan, 04/29/08 at 10:16 pm

Hi Alan. Thank you for your question.

I've done some research on Kaplan University and it appears that they are a legitimate program. They are regionally accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), which is one of the six approved agencies I described in point 1 above.

As far as your plans afterward, law schools should recognize your diploma from Kaplan University with regards to it meeting their requirement to hold a bachelors degree before enrollment. However, law schools are still very conservative, and you may have difficulty getting into a well-respected law school with an online degree. From what I have seen, there are many admitted law students who earned their degree from a distance learning program so it is possible, however likely more difficult. The key is to make sure you earn a high LSAT score (the law school admissions test, kind of like the SAT) to prove that you are capable. You will also want to emphasize your reasons for choosing an online college and demonstrate that you can also excel in a traditional environment.

There are online law schools as well, but there are none that are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Only the state of California will allow you to sit for the bar examination (the test you must take to be a lawyer) if you come from a non-ABA law school. And even then, employers are unlikely to view an online, non-ABA law degree favorably. Be very wary in this area.

I hope this has helped. Good luck!

- Brian Cavner, 04/30/08 at 9:01 am

Hi Brian,

Thanks for giving Alan such a detailed response. I'm sure that many readers would be interested in more discussion on your blog of pre-law-related issues.

Take care!

- Steve Schwartz, 12/28/08 at 5:23 am

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