How to spot an online diploma mill
Some institutions masquerade as legitimate higher education institutions that award degrees to students. Source: Shutterstock

A diploma mill, or degree mill, is a fake company that provides fraudulent college and university certificates and transcripts to people for a fee. Some masquerade as legitimate higher education institutions that award degrees to students, while others merely sell degrees for cash.

The former can be more worrying, as many unsuspecting students may purchase an online degree programme and end up blowing thousands of dollars for an unrecognised degree, or for receiving an inferior qualification than those offered by recognised institutions.

The problem is rampant, with numerous reports showing that many students have fallen prey to these schemes across many countries.

There are many implications to getting a fake degree, regardless of whether you’re aware or unaware that your qualification is fraudulent. This includes difficulty getting a job, or, if you’re already employed but hold a fake degree, it can negatively impact your career, as well as your personal and professional reputation, and legal action can be taken against you.

While authorities are clamping down on these bogus universities, students need to be vigilant to avoid falling prey to these scams.

Here are some red flags that suggest your institution could be a diploma mill:

Lack of accreditation or accreditation from an unrecognised agency

Do some research to ensure your institution is accredited by the relevant bodies. Source: Shutterstock

Accreditation can be a sticky subject – depending on the country of your institution, the accrediting agency will vary. Hence, when it comes to online degrees, you’ll need to do some digging to find out which relevant bodies institutions must refer to.

You should also check the accreditor to be super safe.

For example, if you’re enrolling in an American programme, one of the platforms you can use to check if your institution is accredited is the US Department of Education (USDE) or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Meanwhile, if you plan to enrol in a UK programme, you can use as a reference.

The promise of a degree within a short period

Degrees typically take three to four years to complete.

However, if an institution is promising you a degree within several months without much academic effort on your part, it’s likely that your institution may be fake.

Typically, you’ll need to complete 120 credit hours for a degree – an impossible feat to achieve within a few months. There are also exams, assignments and assessments to complete, tying many students to their books. 

Remember that if something feels too good to be true, it probably is.

Requires a lump sum payment for your degree upfront

Having to make a full payment for your degree in one bill is a likely sign your institution could be a diploma mill.
Source: Shutterstock

Traditionally, institutions don’t require full, upfront payment for their programmes.

Instead, students are charged per credit hour, by class or semester. If you are required to make a full payment before starting your degree, heed with caution.

Insufficient contact details

A lack of basic contact information on an institution’s website, such as a phone number or legitimate address, is undoubtedly a warning sign of a diploma mill.

School’s typically make such information readily available for prospective students to enable them to contact the school for enquiries.

Dodgy admissions criteria

If an institution claims that anyone, regardless of their educational background, can obtain a degree, be careful.  

While there are institutions that allow working individuals to use their work experience as credit for their degrees, enabling them to graduate faster and at a cheaper price, an overemphasis on real-life experiences without having to prove your mastery in these areas for your degree, such as via assessments, is a cause for concern.   

If in doubt, contact the institution for more information and do not proceed with your enrollment until legitimacy is shown.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Should you enrol in an online degree programme?

Everything you need to know about fake degrees and the ‘universities’ awarding them