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Diploma Mills: What Are They and How Do I Recognize Them?

By Carol Bengle Gilbert

Going back to school for a degree in higher education can open up career opportunities, but not all higher education degrees are equal. If you are considering taking higher education classes online or by mail, be especially vigilant in choosing the institution so as to avoid diploma mills.

Identifying Diploma Mills

A diploma mill is an organization presenting itself as an institution of higher education and offering degrees for a fee, while requiring little or no academic work. The old adage, "if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is," is an apt one in recognizing diploma mills. The least scrupulous diploma mills may simply issue a degree for a fee ("mail-drop diploma"). But some diploma mills pretend to be legitimate institutions of higher education by awarding extensive course credit for life experience or activities that do not reflect college level academic work in lieu of requiring serious study.

Diploma Mill Degree Disadvantages

Using a degree from a diploma mill can cost you a promotion, get you fired, and damage your reputation. Presenting a degree from a diploma mill as if it were a bona fide academic credential means you are misrepresenting your qualifications. If an employer detects that your degree is from a diploma mill, the employer is unlikely to promote you to a higher position requiring a college degree and may even fire you for falsely representing your credentials.

Even if you were to get a job or promotion based on presenting a degree from a diploma mill to an unsuspecting employer, the detection of the truth by one co-worker is all it would take to turn the situation from one of short-term gain to one of long-term pain. People competing for your job or promotion who had bona fide degrees and weren't selected have both a motive for blowing the whistle and a justified ground for complaint if they suspect your degree was issued by a diploma mill.

Avoiding Diploma Mills

To avoid diploma mills in your search for an institution of higher education, choose an institution that is accredited by a United States Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency.

Expect to do college level work and to learn in order to earn a degree. If you plan to earn a post-secondary degree online, look at the published graduation rate statistics for any school you are considering. Examine the institution's career placement statistics as well. Compare the rates of several schools. Comparing the graduation and placement rates of a prospective online program with a similar program at a local community college or state university will give you an idea of how effective the program is. Even if you plan only to use the program to advance in an existing job, you are unlikely to get much educational value from an institution with a 5 percent graduation or placement rate. Such low rates are a strong indicator that the institution's quality is deficient. Similarly, an institution claiming a 100 percent graduation rate may be a diploma mill issuing degrees to anyone who ponies up the cash.

The true benefits of a college degree result from hard work and study and are not attainable from diploma mills.

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