How to Avoid Diploma Mills and Find Legitimate Online Schools

Advances in computer technology have given millions of students access to online courses. The flexibility of online degree programs makes it possible for people to attend class, earn an income, raise a family and get ahead.

But some students have been scammed. When you can’t visit campuses to interview and tour, it might be difficult to distinguish the legitimate online colleges from the frauds. These frauds, also known as “diploma mills,” only provide worthless degrees for your money. This type of fraud has been practiced for generations but is mushrooming with the Internet.

How Can Degrees be Worthless?

Diploma mills aren’t supervised by government or professional organizations that matter to employers or legitimate schools. This means that you’ll have trouble finding employment and your credits won’t transfer to other institutions.

Also, you won’t be eligible for federal student aid. The US government provides about $1.7 billion in student aid each year.

Finally, there’s the threat of prosecution. Would you want your doctor to be operating with a fake degree?

The Ol’ Name Trick

One trick of diploma mills is to ride on the success of a reputable school. An example from the diploma mill list in Wikipedia is Cal Southern University. This unaccredited school in Texas is registered in Niue, an island in the South Pacific.

Cal Southern University could easily be confused with three legitimate California schools: the University of Southern California, California Southern University or California Southern Law School. It is on the Texas state government’s list of “illegal degrees.”

Check a School’s Accreditation with CHEA

The easiest way to check a school’s accreditation is by using the free database at CHEA.org. CHEA is the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. This is a private organization that’s aligned with standards of the US Department of Education. It approves programs at approximately 3000 institutions of higher learning.

Plenty of reputable universities, including state schools, are offering accredited online degree programs. There’s no need to resort to an unknown school.

Advice from the Better Business Bureau

CHEA doesn’t include all legitimate schools. Some religious schools opt out, for example, although there are specifically faith-related accreditors available.

How can you identify a sketchy school? Here are a few red flags suggested by the Better Business Bureau:

1. Their degrees can be earned unusually quickly.

2. Tuition is charged for the entire degree instead of by credit hours, courses or semesters.

3. The address includes a PO Box number or suite instead of a traditional street address.