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Uncovering Online Diploma Mills

Weak Laws and Lack of Consumer Education Give Bogus Colleges Room to Grow

Getting a Diploma.Diploma mills purposely set out to deceive consumers. Slick websites, stuffed with persuasive marketing copy, draw in consumers eager to earn a quick college degree. Their professional careers demand they stay competitive, but who’s got the time? “Life Experience” degrees dominate the diploma mill rhetoric. Everyone wants to believe that their professional experiences, workplace training, and even their hobbies matter.

Diploma mills sell that desire. The sales pitch is all the same: based on your work and personal experience we can fit you to a degree in as little as 7 days. Take control of your professional life now.

Why not? Who’s going to know the difference?

Some victims of the diploma mill scam report they were required to take a short exam or write a brief paper to actually get the degree. Outside this minimal effort, though, degrees of all levels, including doctorates, are sold, no questions asked.

The Power of Advertising

They look and sound like legitimate businesses. Diploma mills build websites that give consumers the illusion that there is a real brick and mortar campus somewhere, a faculty building, commencement grounds and an admissions office. Savvy marketing techniques go far beyond the sales pitch veneer. Many low-quality degree mills have designed strategic online advertising campaigns that rival those of their legitimate peers. They use clever web-building techniques, and know how to optimize their paid online advertising campaigns to show up on the most important search engine results. So consumers, like you, may see Belford University—diploma mill—advertised alongside reputable and legitimately accredited University of Phoenix when you shop for online degrees.

Safe Ground for Diploma Mills

As sophisticated as some unaccredited colleges have become, they have begun to butt heads with some state governments that are quite tired of being victimized by bad business. Alabama and Mississippi have been publicly ridiculed as states where anti-fraud laws are so weak that diploma mills have literally run for safe ground within their boundaries. Conversely, almost a dozen states have enacted stiffer regulations for use of fake degrees and toughened their anti-fraud laws, sending many mills packing.

Perhaps the biggest losers in the diploma mill debacle are the actual legitimate online degree programs. This not only affects distance-learning universities, but also impacts the traditional colleges, which have renovated select curriculum that may be offered in an online environment. The goal: to reach a regional audience of online students. The distance-learning realm has worked overtime to earn the level of respect in the business world it’s garnered in the last few years. But the combination of degree commoditization and corporate victimization has undercut the validity of real online degrees. In fact, some studies show that employers are so suspect of online education—thanks to high-profile diploma mill cases—that many refuse to hire applicants with distance learning on their resume.

Background Checks are Ineffective

Yes, employers could carry out smart background checks, but the reality is that until consumer education catches up with the renown of diploma mills, such checks are irrelevant and usually incomplete. Even criminal background checks prove faulty. The task of checking educational credentials demands personal attention. Employers must make phone calls and crosscheck institution credentials with those of official sources such as the Department of Education and the FTC. This is time and know-how most small business owners just don’t have. In our article, “Resources On Diploma Mills and Fake Degrees,” we offer a must-have list of official online resources.

The air of suspicion that surrounds online education is that much more magnified given the fear of terrorism. A number of diploma mills, when put to the test, sold an alarming range of degrees—no questions asked—to both an admitted terrorist and another “applicant” with a professional background as an explosives expert with the Syrian Army. A phony degree could be used to gain dangerous persons access to further education, and high-level jobs where security matters. Fake degrees can even be used in some states to help secure a driver’s license.

Already the Department of Homeland Security’s employment record has been besmirched. How secure are we if one of the chief information officers in a federal security job has been getting promoted thanks to her degrees from a Wyoming diploma mill?

Diploma mills and fake degree suppliers will turn much more sophisticated and savvy. Already law enforcement has seen the technological spoils of counterfeiters—advanced printers and look-alike diploma materials that are being used to manufacture foolproof credentials. When all the evidence is in, perhaps the best defense in the fight against the diploma mill scam is consumer education and awareness.

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