We often see college as a doorway to more opportunities in life, and college can be just that! Unfortunately, unethical people create scams in education just like in other areas of life.

This article helps you understand what “degree mill” or “diploma mill” means. We’ll also cover some tips on spotting college scams.

Degree or diploma mills

The common term is “diploma mill.” This is because the sign of having earned a college degree is the diploma that is awarded.

The term “mill” means that diplomas are “produced” rather than actually earned by students. It’s like saying the institution is not really a college, but just a factory for printing diplomas. This can actually be attractive to people, because it offers something they want — a degree — for a fee, without all the real costs of college (time, study, learning).

As the US Department of Education explains, US federal law gives a definition for “diploma mill.” Here is the definition, copied from the Department of Education’s site — below the definition, we’ll break it down.

DIPLOMA MILL– The term `diploma mill’ means an entity that–

(A)(i) offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training; and (ii) requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and


(B) lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education (as such term is defined in section 102) by–(i) the Secretary pursuant to subpart 2 of part H of title IV; or (ii) a Federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations.

So what does all that legalese mean? To be a diploma mill, an organization has to meet two criteria.

  1. Part (A) of the definition has two pieces: charging money for a credential and not requiring learning or work.
    1. The organization charges a student money for a credential. A credential is something the student can use to show that he/she has learned or achieved in a specific area. Here, the credential is a degree, diploma or certificate that makes people think the student has completed education or training after high school.
    2. But the organization basically only charges money for the credential. The student does little or no actual learning or work. The student just pays money and gets the credential.
  2. Part (B) of the definition says that the organization lacks accreditation from an approved agency. (Learn more about accreditation. It’s important to note that just like there are fake colleges, there are what the U.S. Department of Education calls “fake accrediting agencies,” too.)

To summarize this definition, here’s a checklist. An organization that meets all these criteria is a diploma mill as defined in federal law.

  • Not accredited by an approved agency — the US Department of Education has a database of colleges and programs that are accredited by approved agencies
  • Charges money for a credential
  • Requires little or no work/learning by students

How can I spot a diploma mill?

Because they are scams, fake colleges work hard to seem real. They might have a nice website, and they use language that sounds like real college. Fortunately, there are real differences, and you can learn to spot a fake!

The checklist below gives you questions to ask about a college. Some of these questions are recommended by the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Education. For a legitimate college, the answers to these questions should be “Yes!” There may be legitimate colleges that fail one or two checkpoints, but if an organization fails a lot of them, beware!

  • Do students have to study, take classes, pass exams, etc.? (Some credit for life experience is okay, although there should be a rigorous process for getting it. But most of the degree should be earned at the college.)
  • Do students pay tuition each semester (or for each course or credit)? Diploma mills often charge one fee for the entire credential.
  • Does it take time to earn the degree? A legitimate credential requires completing a course of study, so it should not be possible to get the credential within days.
  • Does the organization avoid pushy marketing? Legitimate colleges avoid high-pressure tactics, spam, popup ads, etc.
  • Is the organization accredited by an approved agency? Remember, there are fake accrediting agencies too, so you need to check on the agency, not just the college.
  • Unless it only offers online classes, does the organization have a campus? You can use street view in Google Maps to check on this. If the organization’s address doesn’t look like a legitimate college, do more checking!
  • Can you talk with people who have graduated? A legitimate college should be able to connect you with alumni who can tell you about their experience.
  • Is the organization seen as legitimate by educated people you know? Sometimes spotting a fake can be hard, but teachers, principals and other professional educators should be especially good at knowing what to look for. Ask a trusted educator for advice!