Don't Be Deceived by Diploma Mills

Senior Content Manager, Peterson's

It may be hard to believe that there are dastardly for-profit universities out there that want to trick you into giving them your hard-earned money for a useless degree. But, unfortunately, there are, and the proliferation of online education programs has made it even easier for these “schools,” generally based wholly or primarily online, to sneak into the mix. Even worse, diploma mills are very tricky, playing on your hopes and hiding their true intentions until it’s too late.

Because they don’t want you to discover they are just a facade, these online schools have become adept at masking their underhanded methods, preying on students, particularly international students, by convoluting names and falsifying credentials.

Then again, there are plenty of legitimate online schools out there too these days. So how do you know if a school is legitimate or if they are trying to fleece you—and provide a subpar sheepskin? Here are seven pieces of advice to follow to ensure the school to which you are applying is on the level.

Accreditation is everything

One surefire way to know if an online university has legitimate standing is to check on their accreditation. “Diploma mills,” as they are qualified by the U.S. Department of Education, will not have proper accreditation references. They may even surreptitiously refer to their programs as “career training” (rather than a degree program), and that’s a red flag. 

However, this is not to say that diploma mills won’t act like they are accredited. They will make up real-sounding but fraudulent organizations that supposedly offer accreditation. For example, "The Accrediting Council for Distance Education" claims to be an "internationally recognized, independent, and private education accrediting body" but has no backing for this claim.

Always check a school’s accreditation on the U.S. Department of Education site or with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation; they even have a handy .pdf that lists all legitimate accreditation councils (as of January 2015). Make sure to cross-reference any accreditation listed with these sites or go to the U.S. Department of Education navigation site.

You should also make sure reputable professional organizations accredit your specific program too. Some colleges may be more legitimate, but perhaps their law degree isn’t recognized by the Bar Association or their School of Dentistry doesn’t have a connection to the American Dental Association. Again, these are bright red, furiously waving flags.

Transfer credits hold the key

Before you spend one cent on an online college or any other school that seems questionable, call a brick-and-mortar school you know for sure is legitimate (your state schools are a good place to start. Also see accreditation tips above) and ask if they accept transfer credits from your proposed online college. A state school like The University of Michigan has no reason not to accept legitimate classes, so if they don’t accept classes from your proposed school, ask them why—and be prepared for something fishy.

What’s in a name?

If you’re only interested in online schools, a great way to avoid possible scams is only apply to online programs that are offered through accredited, long-standing brick-and-mortar schools. Universities that date back to before the Internet existed and have traditional degree programs will likely not be scams. Be careful, though, because scam universities have been known to take over legitimate college names or even claim to be older than they are. If they claim to be over 100 years old and you can’t find histories or archived news dating back as far, they may be stretching the truth.

Related: Scholarship Scams: What to Look For

There are even instances of deliberate smokescreens, with schools using common misspellings to confuse students as to their real identity. The diploma mill The University of Berkley was sued in 2007 because of its obvious attempt to be confused with the University of California, Berkeley. And school names like Americana University and Cal Southern may sound legit, but they’re not.

Look who’s talking

Student reviews and alumni interviews are another wonderful way to learn about a program. But stay vigilant. Disreputable schools will provide falsified testimonials from “alums” or “students” who claim everything is fantastic. If you see multiple complaints online, however, that is a bad sign.

Something’s missing . . .

When researching these schools, ask about academic counseling and career placement services. If these are hard to come by, take it as a warning. Also, if your school is (in)conveniently located in a small foreign country, but is only available to students in the United States, be wary.

Pushy, pushy, pushy!

Many scam universities are incredibly pushy, particularly when it comes to the financial aid packages that they “offer.” If overly engaging—almost hostile—financial aid counselors are hounding you, that’s a very bad sign. You may be quite worthy of generous financial aid packages, but real financial aid counselors just don’t act that way.

It’s sad but true: bad people are out there preying on students desperate for an education. Do your homework so they don’t hoodwink you. You can get a degree that matters, so don’t fall for cheap (or expensive) tricks. A real university won’t give you any short cuts; there’s no such thing as a degree for a flat fee, you can’t be given a degree just for “experience,” and 30 days is definitely not enough time to earn anything useful. Always remember that old saying: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

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