Almost everyone goes to college for the same reason: to prepare for their future career.
Of course, it is also about expanding your mind, challenging yourself, and meeting new people, but in the end it comes down to being qualified for the job that you really want. In today’s society, online degrees are more common than ever. Consequently, “diploma mills” are also more common than ever.
A diploma mill will go to great lengths to appear legitimate, making it very difficult to differentiate the scams from accredited online universities. And while the internet boasts thousands of institutions for higher learning, it also houses thousands of con artists. Diploma mills cheat you out of your money and your academic goals. While diploma mills can be tricky, there are several ways you can avoid them. An online education offers many benefits a traditional education cannot.
Here’s how you can get the online education you desire without getting scammed:
- Check for Accreditation: To ensure that the online universities you are interested in are legitimate, you must research them thoroughly. The first step is to check to see that the institution is an accredited online university. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education maintains a database of accredited schools. Go to this site and check to see if the institution you are considering is on the list. Only schools that provide proper educational degrees can become accredited. If the school that you are interested in is not among the institutions listed by the Department of Education, you will need to do some further investigating. If government education agencies have never heard of the program, then the program is probably a scam. If it isn’t clearly stated whether the school is accredited or not, there is no way to be sure that your coursework will count towards a true degree. While accreditation is the first thing to look for in an online program, your research into the school should not stop there. Also, be weary of schools that use terms like “licensed” or “state authorized” rather than displaying legitimate accreditation.
- Research the Accrediting Agency: While checking for accreditation is the first step to confirming the legitimacy of an online institution, diploma mills can be very sneaky. Even a school that claims accreditation and provides evidence from an accrediting agency can be fraudulent. Be sure to research the accrediting agency that the institution lists. Unfortunately, diploma mills often work closely with “accreditation mills”. These accreditation mills pose as official accreditation agencies and are often very difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Any legitimate accrediting agency will be recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
- Check Contact Information: A big red flag should go up in your mind when an online institution’s website does not provide thorough contact information. A real educational institution (online or otherwise) will offer advisors and customer service representatives who can answer any questions you may have about the school or degree program. One of your first steps should be contacting the school to ask them questions about the program and receive a virtual tour of the institution. Diploma mills will likely only list one phone number to contact them at or provide only a fax number (always a terrible sign). Try to speak with a live person and get as much contact information as you can. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of people to run a university. If the university is legitimate there should be plenty of people to talk to and address your concerns.
- Roaming Addresses: In addition to verifying contact information for an online institution, you should also investigate an institution’s address. If the school changes their address from one state to another often, this is a serious warning sign. Also, if the school only provides a post office box number with no physical location for the school headquarters, you are likely dealing with a scam. If a physical address is provided for the institution, look up that address on the internet and verify that it is truly the address of an online education provider. Diploma mills have one objective: to get your money. A school that only offers a post office box is hoping you will mail them a check and then have no way of locating them.
- Check the Better Business Bureau: Another great way to identify a diploma mill is by checking for complaints to the Better Business Bureau. Although we may not realize it, universities are businesses who work for profit. You obtain an education at the cost of a (sometimes hefty) fee. Because online universities are businesses, they are evaluated by the Better Business Bureau. The U.S. Better Business Bureau is a corporation that is dedicated to gathering and reporting information on business reliability. The BBB alerts the public to frauds businesses have committed and provide information on ethical business practices. Check with the Better Business Bureau in the university’s area to see if there have been any complaints about the institution. Obviously, if there are complaints to the Better Business Bureau about invalid diplomas or internet fraud, then you should seek a different institution for your educational purposes.
- Alumni Information: Another important aspect of a college degree program is the alumni connections made through an institution. When choosing an online degree program, search for references from the college’s alumni. Most universities are more than willing to provide prospective students with references from former students. As mentioned earlier, because universities are businesses they should try to “sell” the school to you. They should be more than happy to supply you with positive alumni references. Obviously, diploma mills posing as legitimate institutions will not have a list of happy former customers.
- Odd Application Process: One of the most obnoxious parts of entering the world of higher education is the application process. With cover letters, essays, test scores, and academic records, applying to college can be a very tedious process. An institution’s application process can be a huge clue into determining whether that institution is a sham or not. If the school’s only acceptance requirement is a credit card number, then you should be very cautious. If it seems like you are buying your diploma, you probably are buying your diploma and nothing more. Another way to determine that an online college is illegitimate is if the degree program costs a flat fee, rather than paying for each course. Institutions like this want to get as much money out in one sitting before you have the chance to realize that you are being cheated. Moreover, if the application process does not ask for any testing scores or other educational background you should seek a different online program.
- Negative Reviews: In today’s world, there is no limit to the number of places you can go online to complain about things. While most people stick to complaining on their Facebook statues, there are also tons of forums and blogs dedicated to discussing short fallings. When researching an online degree program, look for online forums or blogs that discuss the institution. If there are negative reviews of the school, then you should look more closely into the school’s legitimacy. Now, don’t be scared off if there are some posts about how difficult a professor or class is (these are not the complaints that we mean). But, if there are numerous complaints concerning the validity of the school, you should be concerned. Furthermore, if you do research and are unable to find any forums or blogs discussing the institution you are interested in, you should beware. If you are the only person who has heard of this online education program, it is likely that the program is a scam.
- Sounds Too Good To Be True: As we all know, earning a college degree takes time and energy. Part of what you gain from a college education is the gratification of working hard and accomplishing your goals. So, if a degree program sounds really easy, it probably isn’t real. Diploma mills will offer degree programs that boast easy classes and fast results. Although earning a degree online offers several advantages, it is not a shortcut to a fast degree. While some online degree programs may be shorter than traditional ones, no degree can be earned in a matter of days or even weeks. Furthermore, if credit is offered for “real world” experience, you are likely dealing with a diploma mill. You should also be cautious of institutions that offer degree programs for significantly less money than most other institutions. Diploma mills offering degrees for cheap are hoping that potential students will be too excited by the insanely low cost to check the school’s credentials.
- Poor Quality Website: Another key insight into the legitimacy of an online college is the quality of its website. If the marketing material displayed on the website has several spelling or grammatical errors, it is most likely a fake educational institution. Furthermore, if the school’s URL does not end in .edu, you should look more closely into the school’s credentials. Most legitimate educational organizations have websites ending with .edu. Also, you should carefully evaluate the name of the institution you are interested in. If the institution’s name is very similar (but not identical) to the name of a well-known university, you may be dealing with a scam. Some fraudulent companies will change minor details of the name of the institution like putting “college” when the well-known school is “university”. For example, hopeful students may think they are enrolling at “Boston College Online” when really they are really enrolling at “Boston University Online”.