Label a product or service with “accredited” and consumers typically believe an official process has taken place that tags it with a sign of quality and consistency. Until recently, accreditation of higher education institutions has maintained its hold on official connotations. Rapid growth of accreditation mill scams—in conjunction with diploma mills—has seriously undermined the word and the process, and poses serious risks to the legitimacy of a college education at large.
College accreditation has been a voluntary process that most traditional colleges and universities have opted into. Because accreditation is synonymous with consistency and quality, only schools with accreditation may qualify for federal aid. Also, students that choose to attend unaccredited schools waive both federal and state student loan programs as well as many scholarship and grant programs. But it's this near necessity for accreditation that has spawned the new accreditation mill business; yet another underhanded scam devised by fraudulent businesses to dupe the degree-hungry consumer.
Within the U.S. colleges and universities are accredited by any one of dozens of national or regional accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education. This makes the business confusing for consumers and would-be students ignorant to the current facts on accreditation. Knowing how and where to access the resources needed to make an informed decision about legitimate college degrees and programs is only the first half of the equation. Students and consumers must also be able to apply that knowledge to analyze inconsistencies and the rapidly changing climate of higher education, as well as defer to common sense and good instincts.
Traditional colleges have posed little problem for accrediting agencies. Agencies are responsible for devising review criteria that evaluate a college on both its institutional level and on its educational scheme. On-site reviews are combined with institutional self-analysis and regular review to maintain accreditation status.
But not every traditional college has chosen to accredit, which given the current climate may be the kiss of death for a legitimate degree program. Religious institutions have historically been exempt from many state accreditation requirements. Thanks to the litter of diploma mills posing as religious institutions, this exemption is being eliminated by some states. Degree mills are being flushed out from the cover of their religious wraps. Most are scattering to more fertile turf where state regulations are years from catch-up. And then again a handful of states have already made use of unaccredited degrees unlawful.
Reputable online degree programs have suffered even more so than their traditional counterparts. Internet porosity, other widely publicized online scams, and the skepticism accorded distance education all combine to pose a unique challenge. Because most diploma mills offer their bogus degrees online, legitimate online universities have fallen victim to the same suspicion and discrimination.
As if to take advantage of the general accreditation confusion, accreditation mills that sell fraudulent and meaningless accreditations have sprung up around the globe. Unrecognized accreditations continue to allow degree mills to peddle their phony, valueless “life experience” degrees to wannabe students with a need for a college degree the easy way. This is where the word “accredited” loses its value, its meaning, and its reputation as an indicator of high-quality degree programs. This is where almost everyone becomes suspect.
Believe it or not, though, there are still a few bastions of higher education where accreditation has little value. Some professional and technical programs remain out of reach of scams, but time will tell if they remain truly bulletproof.
A system of accreditation has been in place in the U.S. since the early 70s. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recently reported that accreditation is at a crossroads, where the needs and concerns of government, accreditation, and colleges and universities meet. Most at risk may be the traditionally diverse educational environment characteristic of American higher education. It may well be that the diploma and accreditation mill business has had a direct and lasting effect on the future of higher education as we once imagined it.