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Bachelor's of Science or Just BS? 10 Ways to Spot a Diploma Mill

For a textbook example of a diploma mill, examine the case of Dixie and Steven Randock. For $1,277, the Randocks provided a purported Syrian national with undergraduate and advanced degrees in chemistry and environmental engineering. Between 1999 and 2005, the Randocks’ scheme netted $7 million–and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Dr. George Gollin, board member on the Council for Higher Education, estimates that fraudulent universities provide between 100,000 and 200,000 degrees annually, granting bogus graduates access to high-powered jobs. A 2004 Report by the Government Accountability Office found 463 government employees qualified for employment using fake diplomas. Of that number, more than half worked for the Defense Department.

How to Spot a Diploma Mill
If you’re looking for legitimate continuing education, you may encounter an offer from a diploma mill. Here are ten red flags to look for:

1. No Classes Necessary. Legitimate colleges entail real coursework, either in a brick-and-mortar classroom, or online. If you discover an advertisement promising degrees based on “life experience,” you’re looking at a pitch from a diploma mill.
2. Free Transcript with Purchase. Many diploma mills provide fraudulent transcripts along with bogus degrees. If an institution offers to provide you with class transcripts, even though you’ve never been to class, steer clear.
3. Earn a Degree in 5 Days. If a college promises you a degree in days, be suspicious. Full-time college students earning an associate’s degree usually take eighteen months to two years to finish a program. If you’re earning a bachelor’s degree, you typically need to invest two to three years in study.
4. Bogus Accreditation. Diploma mills often cite a list of accrediting institutions. Don’t be fooled! Legitimate universities are accredited by federally recognized agencies. Consult the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education for lists of legitimate accrediting agencies.
5. Flat Fee for a Degree. Real universities charge by the semester, the credit hour, or the course. Fraudulent universities may charge by the degree, even offering discounts for ordering multiple degrees.
6. What’s in a Name? Diploma mills choose names that invoke prestigious real universities. The Randocks’ roster of diploma mills included “St. Regis University” and “James Monroe University.”
7. Remit Check to PO Box. While online colleges traditionally don’t offer brick-and-mortar classrooms, most should have a physical address. The same goes for traditional universities. Diploma mills often work out of post office boxes, which can make it easy to move shop when the law closes in.
8. Foreign Accreditation. Diploma mills often make false claims of foreign accreditation without the knowledge of the host country (the charges against the Randocks included bribing Liberian government officials to obtain foreign accreditation for St. Regis University).
9. Custom Order Your GPA. Diploma mills may allow you to pick your own GPA. Real colleges never do.
10. No Professor, No Problem. No school is complete without a faculty. If a school promises to connect you with “advisors,” but no teachers, it’s not a real school.

The most important thing to look for in a college is accreditation. Federally recognized accreditation institutions ensure that colleges provide quality education to students. Remember, don’t ask: “Is this institution accredited?” but: “Is the accreditation federally recognized?”

In the case of the Randocks, their phony accreditation earned them jail time. That Syrian national shopping for a degree programs was a secret service agent who had been tailing the Randocks for three years. Thanks to his efforts, the Randocks were sentenced to 36 months in federal prison, three years of probation, and the forfeiture of over $500,000 in ill-gotten gains.

New York Times, “Diploma Mill Concerns Extend Beyond Fraud”
U.S. Department of Education, “Diploma Mills and Accreditation”
U.S. Department of Justice, “Diploma Mill Promoter Sent to Prison” (Press Release)


Publish date: January 9, 2009