Online schools have become popular resources for those continuing their education, but either want or need to work from home. Distance learning effectively fills the void for those who cannot or prefer not to attend traditional campus classes.

While there are many excellent benefits to distance learning, unfortunately some schools have emerged on the web for the sole purpose of handing out degrees in exchange for money with no or little academic work required. These are referred to as "diploma mills."

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines a diploma mill as:

"An institution of higher education operating without supervision of a state or professional agency and granting diplomas which are either fraudulent or because of the lack of proper standards worthless." 1

Fake diplomaCredit: Gadget Dude on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with AttributionDiploma mills undermine education. Not to mention many individuals and organizations are impacted by the unsavory business practices diploma mills engage in.

How Enrollees Are Done a Disservice

These so-called schools offer prospective students an easy education which is most often simply comprised of accepted students paying some fees and maybe submitting a paper for entry. Assignments are minimal, if any are given at all. There may or may not be a quiz (usually an easy one) involved. Many of these "schools" offer extraordinary levels of college credit for "life experience." Subsequently, after meeting the mill's "requirements", those enrolled in these fraudulent organizations do not really learn anything. Essentially, people are buying these degrees whether they realize it or not.

While the easy route may seem appealing to some, in reality enrollees are simply paying for a piece of paper which they may be able to skate by with for a short while, but most businesses and professional organizations are becoming aware of known diploma mills and, as a result, credentials are checked.

In the end, graduates of the diploma mills often end up paying a lot more than they'd bargained for when they find their fake credentials aren't worth a whole lot in the educational or job markets. Saving a few bucks for a degree in the long run probably turns out to be a waste of both time and money.

How Diploma Mills Can Impact Other Colleges

Students are not the only ones who lose out due to the actions of diploma mills.  Legitimate colleges, universities and technical schools could lose enrollment when hopeful students are lured to the clever marketing promoted by diploma mill operations. In some specific degree (subject area) markets, this is an issue as colleges compete for student enrollment and lose out to the "easy way out" at a cheaper costs offered by degree churners.

Churn
Credit: Samuel Mann on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with attribution

Watch out for online schools that are essentially churning out worthless diplomas in exchange for your hard-earned cash. The paper isn't worth much in the long-term.

In addition, students pursuing legitimate degrees lose out if classes can get cancelled due to low enrollment numbers. As an effort to cut the cost of overhead, colleges often need to cancel classes that don't at least cover costs to run the class. When would-be students decide to sign up at a diploma mill, these are enrollments that could have helped fill classes at legitimate and accredited institutions.

Employers and Colleagues are Affected Too

When individuals list their doctored credentials on resumes, sometimes this does get by the initial hiring procedures and people with diploma mill papers are hired. In the long run this hurts companies because these employees are sometimes not equipped with the knowledge or skills required to handle the job. Not to mention it's a waste of time during the hiring process.

Also, as a result, other potential and qualified job applicants lose out on the jobs to those who really did not earn their degrees through actual work. Colleagues are forced to pick up the slack for those not prepped for the job and employers end up wasting their resources on an employee not qualified for the job.

While many people who sign up for a diploma mill do not realize at first they are not signing up for an accredited and/or legitimately recognized program, there are some people who do and go with it anyway. Speaking of accreditation, prospective students need to check these out too, as many diploma mills set up fake accreditation agencies (A.K.A. "Accreditation Mills").

Windmills
Credit: Wikipedia

Fake college degrees handed out by diploma mills do not benefit anyone in the long run.

Those who are truly interested in pursuing a legitimate online degree and are not sure how to avoid a diploma mill, it is important to learn how to differentiate. Basically, as the old adage states, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Diploma mills serve no good to anyone except the fraudsters behind the schemes, so to avoid them, the first step is to know what to look for and have a solid understanding about these schemers are about. Arming yourself with this information will help you avoid them when seeking a good degree program.

Signs of a Diploma Mill

When trying to identify a diploma mill there are a few areas you should look at:

Registration Procedures

Does the school consider previous learning and is there a vetting process? Does the school ask you to send a check to a mailbox and promises a fast and easy degree? Or worse, does the school promise an immediate degree? If so, run the other way.

Time Invested in the Degree

The road to higher learning is not a short cut and any school that promises fast and easy results is likely a scam. Even if nominal work is required, this still won't equate to a real degree program offered by an accredited college.

While there are some legitimate accelerated degrees, these are demanding and time consuming, if only for the short-term. Diploma mills, on the other hand, offer degrees in short periods of time, low levels of work and don't demand many, if any, requirements to be met.

Contact Information

Is it difficult to see who is running the school? Is the information provided to interested learners vague and using the aforementioned P.O. Box? This is a definite red flag and a probability someone is looking to take your money without providing you with an education.

Pricing

There is a definitive range of tuition and fee scales charged by colleges, but if a relatively unheard of school charges fees that are either too high or too low, this is another red flag and should immediately trigger more investigation before registering.

Name of University

Another warning sign is if the school's name is very closely aligned with a legitimate school. Often diploma mills will try and mimic real schools to confuse potential students and trick them into investing into their fake programs.

Ability to Back up Claims

Most diploma mills are cloaked in secrecy, do not offer faculty lists or other informative publications. Instead they focus on the idea of an easy education and, of course the biggest priority - collecting tuition and fees. Discussing educational quality is probably pretty low on the list, if they are helpful in this area at all.

U.S. Government Takes Action

In January 2010 United States introduced the Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act.

"The bill’s purpose is to reduce and prevent the sale and use of fraudulent degrees in order to protect the integrity of valid higher education degrees that are used for Federal employment purposes". 2

Many in higher education are applauding this bill for making a strong move to eliminate diploma mills which don't do anyone any good except those getting their pockets lined with the cash made from selling degrees.

The problem is when one of these "schools" get caught, they end up shifting outside of the United States, such as the case with the formerly Wyoming-based "Hamilton University" which simply moved to the Bahamas, where it is difficult to get the operation shut down. 4 And this isn't the only example. Take "Commonwealth Open University", which in 2012 was a "school" registered in the British Virgin Islands. Many college professors and U.S. government workers obtained their degrees from this diploma mill, some of them at taxpayer expense. These are just two, there are many other fraudulent schools out there, as it's a billion dollar industry. 5

The Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland shares more signs to look out for when investigating online schools

What to look for in terms of accreditation as it has a specific meaning, some mills substitute other convincing language, but  it still does not mean they are legitimately accredited.

Obtaining a diploma mill degree is really useless. Sure the credentials might appear to be there, but many employers are savvy and typically know which schools are accredited and which are not. Even if an employer does not pick up on an illegal and / or fraudulent degree right away, in the long run people do themselves an injustice. The bottom line is they did not earn the degree.  More often than not falsifying knowledge and /or skills on a resume leads to a bad ending. Either the fraud is detected or the person with the falsified credentials finds he or she does not have the ability to handle what is being asked to do on the job.

Diploma mills serve no good to anyone except the fraudsters behind the schemes. However, knowing what to look for and having a strong understanding about what diploma mills are about will help you avoid them when seeking schools to obtain higher education.