Legitimate Online Colleges vs. Diploma Mills

Written By: Holly Johnson

Published: 9/6/2022

If you're planning to spend thousands of dollars and several years of your life earning a college degree, you should make sure you know the difference between a diploma mill and a legitimate online school. After all, diploma mills do not meet the same standards as traditional institutions of higher education, and they often charge considerably higher tuition and fees than other, legitimate schools.

Unfortunately, diploma mills go out of their way to disguise themselves as something better than what they are. They also advertise terms that can seem too good to be true, such as the chance to get college credit for life experience instead of time spent in class.

Before you begin comparing the best online colleges, it can help to know all the tricks and schemes diploma mills use to try to get you to enroll. Read on to learn how degree mill schools and scholarship scams work and how to avoid them.

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What Is a Diploma Mill?

If you've been busy searching for terms like "diploma mill meaning," you should know that these schools can come in many different forms. However, the U.S. Department of Education defines diploma mills as "schools that are more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education."

In the meantime, the Higher Education Opportunity Act defines a diploma mill as an entity that "offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training."

They also say that diploma mills require individuals to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such a degree, diploma, or certificate. Finally, the Higher Education Opportunity Act says that diploma mills lack accreditation by legitimate accrediting agencies and other associations recognized by institutions of higher education.

The chart below highlights some of the main differences between diploma mills and quality online schools:

Diploma Mills vs Real Online Colleges

Diploma Mill Legitimate Online College
Exist to maximize profit at the expense of students Exists to provide higher education that meets academic standards
May be accredited by a fake accrediting agency Is accredited by a legitimate accrediting agency that's recognized by the U.S. Department of Education
May offer college credit for life experience May offer college credit based on the use of standardized tests, oral exams, professional certification, and past college credits transferred from other legitimate schools
May use a foreign address to avoid U.S. laws Can be easily researched and confirmed as legitimate
Can leave you inadequately trained for work in your chosen field Helps you earn a high-quality degree that prepares you for the workforce
May not be recognized by employers Will be recognized and respected by employers

Why Should We Be Concerned About Degree Mills?

There are several reasons to worry about diploma mills, including the fact they do not truly offer what they promise — which is a high quality education. Because these schools offer phony, or at least somewhat questionable, degrees and certificates, they even put graduates at risk of lying about their educational background and credentials when they begin applying for jobs.

In the meantime, diploma mills can charge exorbitant tuition and fees that are not commensurate with the degree program being pursued. Diploma mills are frequently subject to government action as well, and they can close their doors and leave their students in a lurch.

Diploma mills are even known for lying to potential students in order to get them to enroll. For example, a school may use deceptive advertising and marketing tactics to entice new students to enroll.

Are Diploma Mills Legal?

The federal government does not have any specific laws that prohibit diploma mills, and the enforcement of educational standards is mostly left to states as a result. Meanwhile, the great lengths these schools go to in order to appear legitimate makes some college degree scams incredibly difficult to spot.

However, there have been numerous diploma mills and higher education scams shut down by various government agencies over the years. Typically, this happens after the school is proven to have used predatory practices or made phony claims.

As an example, a for-profit college, known as ITT Technical Institute, very famously filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors after a whistleblower reported on the school's use of predatory recruitment practices. After several government actions against the school, the U.S. government even banned ITT Technical Institute from enrolling new students.

Top Ways to Spot a Diploma Mill Scam

Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., a lawyer and professor at Bentley University, points out that not all for-profit colleges are diploma mills or scams. However, a large number of for-profit schools fall into this category, so you should take extra steps to confirm the legitimacy of a for-profit college before you attend one.

When it comes to diploma mills, here are some red flags to watch out for:

College Credit for Life Experience

The U.S. Department of Education says students should steer clear of institutions that promise college credit and degrees based on their life experiences. Schools who make these promises typically require little or no documentation of prior learning, and they use some pretty questionable methods when it comes to determining the number of credits awarded this way.

As the Department of Education notes, some legitimate colleges and universities offer college credit for various life expenses, but only with the use of standardized tests, oral exams, professional certification, and past college credits transferred from other legitimate schools.

Internet Address

Also, don't automatically trust schools that have an internet address that ends in .edu. While current standards prohibit questionable institutions from using .edu in their web address, plenty of shady players were approved to use a .edu address before these standards were put in place.

Ultimately, this means you cannot completely trust the usage of .edu at the end of a school's website to mean they are a legitimate institution.

Confusing or Similar School Names

When it comes to spotting a diploma mill, you should also be careful of school names that trick you into thinking they're something they're not. Of course, degree mill schools choose their names carefully and on purpose in order to piggyback off the legitimacy of accredited institutions of higher education.


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"Sometimes the names of these scamming colleges and universities are confusingly similar to legitimate colleges," notes Weisman. "For instance, Columbia State University is a diploma mill while Columbia University is an eminent Ivy League school."

Fake Accrediting Agencies

The U.S. Department of Education notes that diploma mills often claim accreditation after being accredited by a phony accrediting institution. If students don't know what to watch out for — and if they assume the accrediting institution is the real thing — this can make the school seem more legitimate than they really are.

According to higher education expert William Fenton of InGenius Prep, fake accrediting agencies often lend their name to diploma mills as part of the overall scheme to look authentic and convince potential students that the school is accredited.

With that in mind, future college students should never take a school's word on whether they are accredited or not. Instead, Weisman says they should first check whether their school is listed by the U.S. Department of Education using their accreditation search tool.

Fenton adds that fake accreditation websites often have broken links and misspellings galore: This is "another give away that it's not real," he says.

Scholarship Scams

Finally, students should watch out for scholarship scams that may or may not be affiliated with phony institutions of higher education. Some scams may ask for money in advance of a scholarship, which will supposedly be refunded later. Others are nothing more than phishing schemes designed to get access to your sensitive personal information.

If you want to learn more about scholarship scams and how to avoid them, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers a helpful guide.

You can also check out our Scholarship Guide for some tips about how to find the best scholarships for online students.

Signs of a Quality Online Program

As you strive to avoid diploma mills at all costs, you should watch out for all the red flags we've mentioned in this guide.

There are also signs of quality online degree programs to look for as well, including the following:

  • Accreditation: Legitimate online schools are properly accredited by accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Connection to a brick-and-mortar school: Fention says many legitimate online programs are connected to traditional colleges and universities.
  • Contact details: Legitimate schools list a physical address and phone number on their website. You can search their address using an online map tool, in which case you'll be able to locate the physical building they operate from.
  • Rigorous academic standards: Legitimate colleges and universities require at least 60 credits for an associate degree and at least 120 credits to earn a bachelor's degree.
  • Solid stats: Fenton adds that real colleges and universities can tell you how many people are currently enrolled and how many people have graduated in recent years. "If the institution has been around long enough to graduate students, it's a good bet that it's a real place," he says.
  • Transparency: Fenton adds that legitimate institutions of higher education clearly lay out the initial cost of their courses and degree programs where students can find them. Meanwhile, diploma mills often work diligently to hide the cost of their programs.

Bottom Line

Choosing a college is stressful already since so much is at stake, and it's downright disheartening to know diploma mills are actively trying to trick you. Fortunately, avoiding diploma mills is relatively easy once you know what to look for. Plus, there are plenty of real online schools that are ready and waiting to help you earn the degree you've always wanted.

If you want to read more about how to find the best online schools, make sure to check out our resources hub. Also take the time to research online schools that offer the degree programs you're interested in pursuing, and make sure to compare options based on curriculum, affordability, and other factors that could impact your learning experience.

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