Don't Be Deceived by Diploma Mills

Online degree programs are popular today, making it easier for diploma mill scams to get students to pay for illegitimate degrees. Look out for these red flags!

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’re 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 still plenty of legitimate online schools out there too these days. So how do you know if a school is legitimate or if they’re trying to scam you? Here’s some advice to follow to ensure the school to which you are applying is legitimate.

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 US 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. Make sure to cross-reference any accreditation listed with these sites or use the College Navigator 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.

Related: College Search Resources Students Need to Know About

Look for online programs through brick-and-mortar schools

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.

There are even instances of deliberate smokescreens, with schools using common misspellings to confuse students as to their real identity. The University of Berkley, a diploma mill, 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.

Related: Scholarship Scams: What to Look For

Other red flags in your online search

Researching legitimate accreditations and seeking an online program through a typically on-campus school are two sure-fire ways to avoid diploma mill scams, but here are some other things to research and look out for in your search.

  • Student reviews: 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, it’s a bad sign.
  • Look for typical college services: When researching these schools, look for academic counseling and career placement services. If these are hard to come by, take it as a warning.
  • Check in about transfer credits with other schools: Before you spend one cent on an online college or any school that seems questionable, call a brick-and-mortar school you know is legitimate 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 tell you they don’t accept classes from your proposed school, ask them why—and be prepared for something fishy.
  • Watch out for pushy counselors: 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.
  • Use reputable organizations to find diploma mill lists: Nothing weeds out scams like a comprehensive list from a trusted resource. Before or during your search, do a simple Google search for “diploma mills 2020” to find scams that trusted resources say to stay away from. Here’s a diploma mill list to get you started from

Related: Online Degree Programs: The Pros and Cons

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.  

Start searching for legitimate online degree programs using the CollegeXpress College Search tool now!

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Kelly Nogueiro

Kelly Nogueiro


For me, CollegeXpress has given me a valuable tool to use with my students to explore colleges easily beyond objective data. It helps me find colleges for students that fit their needs and wants that aren’t quite so black and white. It's a wealth of knowledge, and the Type-A side of me loves all the lists and the fact that I know they're coming from folks who know what they're talking about. I share it with colleagues and students alike, and it's always well received.

Jada Bohanon

Jada Bohanon

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me find scholarships for the colleges I applied to. It was very hard for me to find scholarships in the beginning that I was qualified for. My teachers recommended this website to find some, and not only did I find some scholarships but I also got to look into some schools I hadn’t heard of before. I was very happy to have discovered this website, especially with the coronavirus spreading all over as I can’t really go visit many colleges.

Nazira Abdelkhalek

Nazira Abdelkhalek

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2014

I am very honored to be this year’s recipient of the Multicultural Student Community Service Scholarship! This scholarship is vital to helping me achieve and fulfill my dreams, and gives me confidence and motivation as I begin my college career. The CollegeXpress website has been invaluable over the past year as I planned my educational and professional goals. I highly recommend it to all students as they begin to focus on their college and career interests. The website is a wonderful guide to schools and scholarships.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Bell College Consulting

The college lists on CollegeXpress are indispensable for sussing out creative additions to a student’s list, and the college-specific pages provide terrific commentary and suggestions for related schools. CollegeXpress is among the most trusted sources I use for information for my students.

Elizabeth Stafford

Elizabeth Stafford

High School Class of 2021

As a UK student moving to California due to my dad's job in the military, when I first signed up for CollegeXpress a few months ago, the college process ahead seemed daunting and incredibly stressful. That all changed after I started to explore what this website had to offer. Not only was I helped by the vast array of resources available to me, but through being a CollegeXpress member, there have been so many more benefits. There have been emails with college tips—all of which I found incredibly helpful—as well as invitations to events and notifications of scholarships that'll make college possible for me. Overall, I'm very grateful to CollegeXpress for all of these things and more. Not only have they helped me grow my understanding of the college process, but they've also helped me to grow as a person, giving me new skills that I can take with me through life.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Moody Bible Institute

Chicago, IL

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN

Westmont College

Santa Barbara, CA

John Carroll University

University Heights, OH