You Know You’re Attending a Diploma Mill If…

Robyn Tellefsen | August 31, 2011

It’s so hard to tell what’s for real these days. If you’re going to spend money on a diamond, you want to make sure you don’t leave the store with cubic zirconia. If you’re purchasing a rare autograph, you don’t want to drop cash for a fraud. And if you’re paying good money for a college education, it’s important that it be worth more than the paper your diploma is printed on. So how do you know if your school is the real deal and not a diploma mill? Here are a few red flags to look out for.

>> It’s not accredited. In the U.S., accreditation is the main way we can tell that a school or program is up to snuff. Accreditation basically means the school or program has completed a rigorous process of self-examination and peer review. If the school you’re attending hasn’t been accredited, that means there’s no authority figure double-checking the quality of the education you’re getting. You’re basically out there on your own – and the neighborhood may not be the greatest. (Note: Just because a school is not accredited does not mean the school is a diploma mill. There are legitimate institutions out there that are not accredited, or are not yet accredited – just be very careful if you go this route. No accreditation means no federal or state financial aid, among other things.)

>> It’s accredited by an unrecognized (or even fake) accrediting agency. Unless you’re paying really close attention, you probably have no idea which accrediting agencies are legit and which ones are counterfeit. There’s an easy way to tell which ones are on the up and up – just check this list of organizations that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). If your school is accredited by an organization that’s not on this list – or worse, one that has an eerily similar name – the accreditation might be meaningless.

>> It’s accredited by a foreign accrediting agency. USDE and CHEA do not recognize foreign accrediting agencies, so if your school’s endorsement comes from Dubai Degrees R Us, beware. A foreign diploma mill might claim to be operating under the approval of the education ministry of its country when in fact it has never been officially reviewed or sanctioned. You don’t have to stay in the U.S. to get a nationally recognized degree, though – approved accrediting agencies (like AACSB International –The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) accredit foreign institutions, too.

There are other ways to spot a diploma mill – degrees based on life experience, super-short programs, flat-fee degrees – but lack of proper accreditation is a solid indicator that something is amiss or that you need to tread very carefully. You can go the unaccredited route if you really want to, but there’s a lot at stake: financial aid, academic credit transfer, tuition assistance from your employer, eligibility to apply for professional licensure… Why not save yourself the headache (and wasted time and money) by choosing a properly accredited program from the get-go?

-Robyn Tellefsen

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