Beware of illegitimate 'diploma mills'
The media spotlight has been squarely focused on the recent revelations concerning advanced degrees that may have been received from non-accredited institutions. In this Internet age, so-called diploma mills have become extremely prevalent. On the surface, their names suggest an appropriate institution of higher learning. Yet the reality is far from that.
What are diploma mills, and why should we be concerned? Diploma mills are non-accredited for-profit institutions that essentially provide degrees and transcripts for a fee to students, with little or no academic expectations. Diploma mills disguise themselves as legitimate colleges/universities, and can frequently lure in unsuspecting students, as well as those individuals deliberately seeking a quick degree.
The rapid growth of the Internet has allowed diploma mills to grow as an industry. There is now a plethora of on-line degree programs. For many on-line students, no thought is given to whether the on-line degree program is attached to an actual physical college or university. Formerly relatively obscure mom and pop businesses, diploma mills have exploded in growth as a result.
Since diploma mills are in the business of providing degrees for little or no academic study, they are providing false credentials to individuals who then can advance in rank and pay scale in the public and private sector. According to recent studies, diploma mills have issued between 100,000 and 200,000 degrees. People who obtain degrees from diploma mills are working in our schools, our government agencies, and in high-level occupations. There is also a national security issue in that foreigners who obtain diploma mill degrees may then be eligible for U.S. visas.
How do diploma mills attract students? Diploma mills frequently use names that are very similar to recognized accredited schools in an effort to attract unsuspecting tuition-payers. They often try to imply accreditation by linking themselves to a non-approved accrediting body. If you do encounter a diploma mill web site, there are signs that indicate that the school may not be legitimate. One common tactic is to require total payment up front. That is a strong tip-off that the school is not legitimate. Other typical signs of a diploma mill can be found at www.ed.gov/students/prep/college/diplomamills/resources.html.
How do I determine if the school I am interested in is legitimate? All legitimate higher education institutions are accredited by their corresponding regional accreditation association. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) coordinates recognized accreditation activities, including those nationally-recognized regional accrediting agencies. "A national advocate and institutional voice for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation, CHEA is an association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations." (www.chea.org/pdf/chea_glance_2006.pdf).
Regional accreditation is considered the standard accreditation for the vast majority of public and private universities. "Recognition by CHEA affirms that the standards and processes of the accrediting organization are consistent with the academic quality, improvement and accountability expectations that CHEA has established, including the eligibility standard that the majority of institutions or programs each accredits are degree-granting" (www.chea.org/Directories/regional.asp).
The following is a list of CHEA-recognized regional accrediting bodies: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools; New England Association of Schools and Colleges; North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; and Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
All CHEA-member colleges and universities are listed on their web site. In addition to regional accreditation, there are also independent national accrediting organizations. The U. S. Department of Education is responsible for maintaining a list of all recognized accreditation agencies. That list can be found at www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
What is being done about diploma mills? Many states have begun to pass legislation concerning diploma mills. New Jersey has also begun to take action. Legislation has been introduced in the NJ General Assembly (A3140) which would "prohibit public employers from reimbursing tuition or awarding promotions or compensation based on degrees or certifications obtained from unaccredited institutions" (http://www.nj.gov/highereducation/PDFs/A3140_I1.pdf).
As public awareness of diploma mills increases and the media continues to report on public employees who misrepresent their academic backgrounds, the result will be increased pressure on state legislators and hopefully passed legislation that outlaws diploma mills. In the meantime, it is extremely important that anyone in the market for higher education opportunities are pro-active and seek out all information possible on the accreditation status of the college/university to which they are applying.
Let the buyer beware!