A Brief History of the Diploma Mill Scam (and 10 Tips for Students to Avoid Them)

By Theresa Donahue
March 2nd, 2010

Diploma mills, or businesses that make a profit by posing as a legitimate college, university or school, have a history that reaches back into the 19th century. But, diploma mills — and news about them — has proliferated since the onset of the home computer. Read on to learn about the history of diploma mills as well as ten tips on how to avoid them.

  • 1880: The “notorious” Dr. John Buchanan ended his medical diploma-mill career by jumping to his death from the Philadelphia and Camden ferry boat. This article, which ran in The New York Times, stated that the “bogus diploma business was thoroughly exposed” in 1872, just eight years after the Civil War ended.
  • 1900: Government officers raided The Metropolitan Medical College, located in Chicago, and arrested its officials for mail fraud. The college sold degrees to practice medicine and law and the prices ranged from three to two-hundred dollars. Post Office Inspector Gould made the arrest and stated that this fraud case was the largest the postal authorities had dealt with to that date. Additionally, “graduates” of this school were known to be practicing law and medicine throughout the world, but were especially prevalent in Great Britain.
  • 1971: Florida became known as the “diploma mill cesspool of the nation” after two area colleges were reviewed by the state Senate Committee on Commerce.
  • 1998: If you think diploma mills exist only online, think again. In this case, a Brooklyn high school principal padded grades, instituted no-work classes and reversed failing Regents exams creating a virtual diploma mill.
  • 2003: A doctor who graduated from a diploma mill managed to kill an eight-year-old girl by taking her off insulin. Laurence Perry served up to fifteen months in jail for manslaughter and for practicing medicine without a license. This article points out that the onset of the Internet allowed for a proliferation of bogus degrees. By this date, more than 400 diploma mills and 300 counterfeit diploma Web sites existed.
  • 2004USA Today broke a story that exposed twenty-eight senior-level government officials with fake degrees from diploma mills. In many cases, these degrees were paid for with government money. At least $170,000 in taxpayer money was used on tuition payments to two unaccredited schools. Additionally, employers began to investigate employee education records, and one investigation revealed that at least six instructors in Gwinnett County, Georgia had advanced degrees from a diploma mill.
  • 2005: In an effort to fight diploma mills, the U.S. Department of Education launched a searchable online database that remains viable today. It includes the names, addresses and enrollment of all schools accredited by organizations recognized by the federal government (see tips below).
  • 2006: This year, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors and Division II Presidents Council enacted legislation that was designed to strengthen the way the association reviews the academic records of prospective student athletes.
  • 2008: The Secret Service gets involved in a sting operation that nailed two individuals for mail and wire fraud, as they were sentenced for selling diplomas for a price. This article describes their business as growing “from a trickle to a flood” of inquiries for degrees between 1999 and 2005.

How to Recognize and Avoid Diploma Mills

The only way to recognize a bogus degree program is to do a little legwork yourself. The following list contains tips and information about known diploma mills as well as search engines that can help with your search and a few articles that may help you to recognize the diploma mill:

  1. Search for Accredited Colleges and Degree-Granting Programs: In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education formed a search engine for citizens to learn more about the colleges they want to attend. Each of the postsecondary educational institutions and programs contained within the database is, or was, accredited by an accrediting agency or state approval agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a “reliable authority as to the quality of postsecondary education” within the meaning of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA). Examples of online institutions that are accredited, include Strayer University, Western Governors University, Grand Canyon University, Liberty University, Walden University, and more.
  2. Search for Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies: This information will back up what you learn from colleges that claim accreditation. This list, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, provides the names of accrediting agencies that are both recognized and legal.
  3. Learn About Unaccredited Colleges: This short list is provided by the State of Oregon, and covers colleges in California, Oregon, New Mexico and Utah.
  4. Learn about Diploma Mills and Accreditation: The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) covers the gamut from federal recognition of college, accrediting organizations and a list [PDF] of known colleges that are not accredited by CHEA.
  5. Learn about Fake Accrediting Agencies: Although this article dates back to 1999, many reputable agencies continue to point to it to show agencies that are not recognized under GAAP, or the Generally Accepted Accrediting Practices. Additionally, the accrediting agencies on this list are not recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation in Washington or the U.S. Department of Education, nor by UNESCO or by the education departments or ministries of major countries.
  6. Get Information about Unaccredited Degree-Granting Institutions: This list provides a state-by-state resource to learn about unaccredited degree-granting institutions.
  7. Learn What a Fake Degree Looks Like: This document [PDF], provided by the United States General Accounting Office, shows degrees ‘earned’ (rather, paid for) from diploma mills.
  8. Learn the Tell-Tale Signs of a Bogus Degree: The Federal Trade Commission (FTA) offers a document that outlines the issues you need to look for when researching colleges. They also provide another document that outlines more issues.
  9. Research Private Colleges: Because a college is private, that does not mean it is legitimate. use the National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools Web site (NASASPS) to research any private school.
  10. Research Online Colleges: Online colleges may prove most problematic, as not all online degree-granting programs originate from a reputable source. Use search engines such as OEDb (Online Education Database) and eLearners to learn more about online college degree-granting programs that are accredited by reputable accrediting agencies.
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