Degree Mills: An Old Problem & A New Threat


Diploma or degree mills come in many guises. Some degree mills blatantly offer to sell a degree and perhaps a transcript from a legitimate school. Others can be easily recognized by promising that an applicant can receive a degree in a very short period of time, sometimes as little as five days. Another type of degree mill will purport to look at an applicant’s life experience and award a degree based solely on a description of this experience. Others may require the student to submit papers or other assignments, but still will provide the degree in a short period of time with much less work than would be required by legitimate institutions. An advertisement that claims a student can “earn” a degree in much less time than it would take at a legitimate institution is likely evidence that the school is a degree mill.

Degree mills may resemble legitimate institutions in some ways. For example, many legitimate schools provide credit for life experience, but almost all of these schools require students to provide extensive documentation demonstrating how their experience relates to the learning objectives of the course or courses for which they are seeking credit and may require papers that relate the experience to the course requirements as well. Some schools will also provide opportunities for completing the requirements for a degree in a short period of time. Typically, however, these kinds of programs are intended for students who have completed a considerable number of college-level courses, perhaps at a number of institutions, but have not put these credits together to complete a degree.

Degree mills are not a new phenomenon. During the latter part of the 19th century, the value of the degree increased substantially, as evidenced by the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act and the founding of many new colleges. This created a market for degrees, and fraudulent providers moved into the market to meet the demand. The first documented reference to degree mills was in 1876 when John Eaton, a United States Commissioner of Education, called them a disgrace to American education (Bahur, 2003).

Moving to the 20th century, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill), which provided educational opportunities to millions of World War II veterans, fueled another growth spurt for the degree mill industry. The problem was so widespread that the Congress, in constructing a similar bill that would benefit Korean War veterans, included a provision that required higher education institutions or other providers to meet certain standards of quality as defined by accreditation organizations. The requirement that institutions must be accredited in order for their students to receive federal financial aid still exists today.

While helpful in reducing fraud, the accreditation requirement created a companion problem, the bogus accrediting organization, sometimes referred to as an “accreditation mill.” It is common for degree mills to advertise they are accredited, but many of these so-called accreditors are actually creations of the degree mills themselves. One way they attempt to gain credibility is by including the names of the bogus agencies in lists of legitimate accrediting organizations. They also often include language that legitimate agencies use to describe their function to the public.

Now, early in the 21st century, technology is the impetus for a renewed threat. In the past several years, concern over the problem of fraudulent operators has escalated because of the ease of creating a fraudulent institution on the Internet. A moderately skilled web designer can very easily and quickly create a home page for a fraudulent school with the look and feel of a home page of a legitimate school. Often, it is difficult if not impossible to track down the individuals responsible for perpetrating the fraud, and even if they were to be located, they could very well be operating from some location outside the jurisdiction of state or U.S. laws. It is likely that many of these fraudulent schools are also short-lived, making detection even more difficult. They can start up, collect considerable amounts of money from consumers, go out of business, change their name and emerge as a new entity in a very short period of time.

This is occurring at the same time that there is more and more pressure on individuals to earn degrees, not only bachelor’s degrees, but master’s and doctoral degrees as well. Jobs and promotions increasingly go to individuals with the greatest educational qualifications, even when individuals’ work experience may be more relevant to the job than is a degree. This creates pressures on individuals to obtain degrees, tempting some to take the easy route to a degree – the degree mill.

Scope of the Problem

It is difficult to determine the scope of the problem because degree mills operate under the radar screen of legitimacy, as do those who receive degrees from degree mills. Some estimate that degree mills are a billion-dollar industry. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that a half-billion dollars a year are paid to degree mills. The states of Oregon and Michigan both publish lists of what they believe to be diploma mills. The Michigan list includes roughly 600 alleged degree mills; Oregon lists 260. No one has any idea how many individuals have received degrees from degree mills. Little data exists. At the request of Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2003-2004 examined the extent to which federal funds might have been paid to degree mills for education for federal employees. The GAO study found that 463 federal employees received degrees from three particular alleged degree mills, and 28 senior-level employees in eight federal agencies reported degrees received from “schools” known to be degree mills. However, the conclusion of GAO was that these numbers were considerably understated. While data is scant, it is clear that the number of people paying for their degrees must be significant in order for the “industry” to thrive.

Why Should We Be Concerned about Degree Mills?

The primary reason to be concerned about degree mills is that they demean the value of learning and the importance of educational standards by treating degrees only as a commodity to be bought and sold. This is a primary reason why the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and accrediting organizations are concerned about degree mills. However, there are other reasons as well. In some cases, degree mills defraud individuals who are misled by the promises of the purported school that the degree they earn from the school will have some value. Individuals with bogus degrees also present a danger to the public. This is particularly true of those who receive bogus credentials in fields where they could present a threat to health, safety or well-being. A quick look at the degree mills advertising on the Internet shows that degree mills offer degrees in fields such as nursing, nutrition, electrical and mechanical engineering, biochemistry and accounting, at significant risk to the public. Also, degree mills are unfair to the millions of individuals who have worked hard to earn legitimate degrees.

What Can Be Done About Degree Mills?

The laws of individual states govern the licensure or authorization of educational institutions that reside within their borders. Some states have laws that have discouraged degree mills from operating within their jurisdictions. Typically, in the case of degree mills, state presence was a mailbox. Other states provide very little oversight of educational entities. In the past, degree mills would set up operation in such states, and if a state strengthened its licensure law, degree mills would simply move to another state and begin operation there. The fact that most degree mills operate on the Internet can make state laws less reliable, due to the difficulty of pinpointing their location.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, a Federal Bureau of Investigation initiative called “Dipscam” was successful in investigating and bringing charges against the perpetrators of degree mills. However, since that time there has been limited law enforcement activity. It is also probably true that degree mills have grown more sophisticated in avoiding legal problems, perhaps making legal remedies ultimately ineffective. Fewer make false claims as to the nature of the “education” to be gained and its benefits. Hence, individuals would tend to find it difficult to file claims against the degree mill for false advertising. And, as noted above, the fact that most degree mills operate online also makes detection of the responsible individuals difficult.

As a result of the hearings held by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs on May 11 and 12, 2004 and the GAO report published on May 11, 2004, federal agencies will be paying more attention to the Office of Personnel Management policy that federal funds for employee education go only to schools that are accredited by a federally recognized accrediting organization. Given the publicity, it is also likely that federal officials will be paying more attention to the entities from which applicants for employment and promotion report earning degrees. If all employers took the time to check the legitimacy of the educational credentials of applicants for employment, the market for degree mills would decrease substantially.

With advertisements that claim that you can earn a degree in a week, it is hard to believe that many people who receive bogus degrees are misled into thinking they will be receiving a degree from a reputable institution. Thus, the approach taken by the State of Oregon, which prohibits individuals from presenting degrees from degree mills for employment in the state, may be the best offense against degree mills. Upon a first offense, the individual is warned to cease and desist; a second occurrence is subject to a fine. Laws that would have the effect of reducing the market for bogus degrees may ultimately be more effective in eliminating degree mills than more direct avenues.

What Steps Are Prudent?

Accreditors and schools identified, in websites maintained by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or CHEA, as recognized or accredited, are highly likely to be legitimate. And some accreditors or schools not so identified are legitimate as well. For instance, legitimate schools that are in process of becoming accredited are often not listed, and some religious schools choose not to be listed. Thus, some legitimate higher education accreditors, programs, and institutions are not accredited or recognized by CHEA, USDE, or both. Because often no simple “litmus test” is available to gauge whether an accreditor, school or program is legitimate, members of the public act prudently who consult resources such as those CHEA and government bodies cite, and who conduct further inquiries. In this area, not to “look before you leap” can be a costly, painful, and consequential mistake.