Degree, Diploma & Accreditation Mills

In their quest for higher education and training, students and the public sometimes encounter "degree and diploma mills" − providers of educational offerings or operations that offer certificates and degrees that are considered bogus. They may also encounter "accreditation mills" − providers of accreditation and quality assurance or operations that offer a certification of quality of institutions that is considered bogus.

Diploma, degree and accreditation mills mislead and harm. In the U.S., degrees and certificates from mills may not be acknowledged by other institutions when students seek to transfer or go to graduate school. Employers may not acknowledge degrees and certificates from degree or diploma mills when providing tuition assistance for continuing education. "Accreditation" from an accreditation mill can mislead students and the public about the quality of an institution. In the presence of degree, diploma and accreditation mills, students may spend a good deal of money and receive neither an education nor a useable credential.

There is no single definition of "degree mill", "diploma mill" or of "accreditation mill" in higher education. Some agencies of the federal government scrutinize degree, diploma and accreditation mills, but this is quite limited to date. In general, a degree or diploma mill would not pass the approval process required by the Educational Approval Board (EAB). Similarly, accreditation mills would struggle with the pre-screening required by a recognized accrediting body.

The following link provides an explanation of the difference between EAB approval and accreditation.

GED and HSED Information

Concerns over questionable academic credentials are not limited to the postsecondary education sector. There is great concern about individuals taking General Educational Development (GED) courses or obtaining a High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) from illegitimate providers. The Department of Public Instruction is the state agency in Wisconsin charged with overseeing GEDs and HSEDs. Additional information is also available from the American Council on Education (ACE) and the following ACE publication.

Identifying Degree, Diploma and Accreditation Mills

Identifying degree, diploma and accreditation mills is not easy. A number of the features of degree and diploma mills are similar to familiar higher education institutions. A number of the features of accreditation mills are similar to well-known accrediting organizations. Nonetheless, prospective students, employers and the public can look for several indicators that suggest an operation may be a degree, diploma or accreditation mill. It is the presence of a number of these features taken together that should signal to students and the public that they may, indeed, be dealing with a "mill."

A series of questions follows to help determine whether a provider is a diploma mill or an accreditation mill. In each case, if, for example, the answers to a majority of the questions below are "yes," students and the public should take this as highly suggestive that they may be dealing with a mill. In this circumstance, students and the public may be best served by looking for alternatives for higher education and quality assurance.

DEGREE & DIPLOMA MILLS

If the answers to many of these questions are "yes," the operation under consideration may be a "mill":

  • Can degrees be purchased?
  • Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?
  • Is there a claim of accreditation from a questionable accrediting organization?
  • Does the operation lack state or federal licensure or authority to operate?
  • Is little if any attendance required of students?
  • Are few assignments required for students to earn credits?
  • Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?
  • Are degrees available based solely on experience or resume review?
  • Are there few requirements for graduation?
  • Does the operation charge very high fees as compared with average fees charged by higher education institutions?
  • Alternatively, is the fee so low that it does not appear to be related to the cost of providing legitimate education?
  • Does the operation fail to provide any information about a campus or business location or address and relies, e.g., only on a post office box?
  • Does the operation fail to provide a list of its faculty and their qualifications?
  • Does the operation have a name similar to other well-known colleges and universities?
  • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

ACCREDITATION MILLS

If the answers to many of these questions are "yes," the operation under consideration may be a "mill":

  • Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?
  • Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited without institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?
  • Are high fees for accreditation required as compared to average fees from accrediting organizations?
  • Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by, e.g., USDE or CHEA) when it is not?
  • Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?
  • Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?
  • Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?
  • Is "permanent" accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic review?
  • Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting organizations?
  • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?