Diploma mill

A diploma mill (also known as a degree mill) is an organization that awards academic degrees and diplomas with substandard or no academic study and without recognition by official educational accrediting bodies. The purchaser can then claim to hold an academic degree, and the organization is motivated by making a profit. These degrees are often awarded based on vaguely construed life experience. Some such organizations claim accreditation by non-recognized/unapproved accrediting bodies set up for the purposes of providing a veneer of authenticity.

Common attributes of diploma mills

Diploma mills are frequently named to sound confusingly similar to those of prestigious accredited academic institutions. Despite the fact that trademark law is intended to prevent this situation, diploma mills continue to employ various methods to avoid legal recourse. An example of this is Thomas James Kirk's LaSalle University. In their marketing and advertising campaigns, the mills will often misleadingly claim to be "accredited" when, in fact, many are found to have been endorsed by "dummy" accreditation boards set up by company affiliates. In an attempt to appear more legitimate to potential students, accreditation mills based in the United States may model their websites after real accrediting agencies overseen by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Some may even advertise services for transcript notation and diploma verification in order to seem more legitimate. Another typical ploy is for mills to claim to be internationally recognized by organizations such as UNESCO. UNESCO, however, does not possess the mandate to accredit or recognize institutions of higher education or their programs and diplomas. As diploma mills are typically also licensed to do business, it is common practice within the industry to misuse their business license to imply government approval.

Compared to legitimately accredited institutions, diploma mills tend to have drastically lowered requirements for academic coursework, with some even allowing their students to purchase credentials without any education. Students may be required to purchase textbooks, take tests, and submit homework, but degrees are nonetheless conferred after little or no study.

Buyers often use the diplomas to claim academic credentials for use in securing employment (e.g., a schoolteacher may buy a degree from a diploma mill in order to advance to superintendent). Some diploma mills claim to be based outside the country they market to. This is common with "offshore" jurisdictions.

Characteristics of diploma mills

Diploma mills share a number of characteristics that differentiate them from respected institutions, although some legitimate institutions can also exhibit one or more such characteristics. Some common characteristics are:

  • They lack accreditation by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, although not all unaccredited institutions of higher learning are diploma mills. Some diploma mills claim accreditation by an accreditation mill while referring to themselves as being "fully accredited". Some institutions base their assertions of academic legitimacy on claims of affiliation with respected organizations (such as UNESCO) that are not engaged in school accreditation. Promotional materials may use words denoting a legal status such as "licensed", "state authorized", or "state-approved" to suggest an equivalence to accreditation. Some advertise other indicators of authenticity that are not relevant to academic credentials. For example, the University of Northern Washington advertises that its degrees are "attested and sealed for authenticity by a government appointed notary although notarization certifies only that the document was signed by the person named.
  • No teaching facilities — the address is a postal box or mail forwarding service.
  • Getting a degree requires no visits to the school or other face-to-face meetings with its personnel. Theses or credits can be approved on a mail-order basis. There is little or no interaction with professors. Even if comments and corrections to coursework are given, they do not affect getting the degree. The professors may serve only to write compliments to the "student" that can be given as references. There are, however, many distance education education institutions that are not diploma mills.
  • Name of institution is similar to well known reputable universities.
  • Degrees can be obtained within a few days, weeks or months from the time of enrollment, and back-dating is possible.
  • Either there are no faculty members or they hold advanced degrees from the institution itself or from other diploma mills. They may also sport legitimate degrees that are, however, unrelated to the subject they teach.
  • Academic credit is offered for "life experience," and this is featured heavily in the selling points of the institution.
  • Tuition and fees are paid on a per-degree basis rather than on a per-semester, per-quarter or per-course basis.
  • Prospective students are encouraged to "enroll now" before tuition or fees are increased, or they qualify for a "fellowship", "scholarship" or "grant".
  • The institution has no library, personnel, publication or research. In short, very little that is tangible can be found about the "institution".
  • Doctoral theses and dissertations are not available from University Microfilms International or a national repository or even the institution's own library.
  • Promotional literature contains grammatical and spelling errors, words in Latin, extravagant or pretentious language, and sample diplomas. The school's website looks amateurish or unprofessionally made.
  • The school is situated in the United States but the website does not have an .edu top-level domain. However, an .edu domain cannot be taken as verification of school quality or reputation, as enforcement has sometimes been lax, resulting in schools such as Warnborough College retaining an .edu domain prior to any enforcement policy. Similarly, some non-US mills use a .ac top-level domain name (for Ascension Island) to give the impression of a genuine second-level academic domain name (e.g. However, some legitimate academic institutions have registered .ac domains to prevent misuse of their names.
  • The school is advertised using e-mail spam (unsolicited electronic mail) or other questionable methods.
  • Jurisdiction shopping: the school is situated in another country or legal jurisdiction, where running diploma mills is legal, standards are lax or prosecution is unlikely. This includes a number of jurisdictions in the United States. Compare forum shopping and tax haven.
  • Despite being situated in such a diploma mill-friendly country, the school has no students from that country, and is run entirely by non-native staff.
  • In most of the European Union, tertiary education is free of charge to students and entrance to tertiary education is limited by highly competitive entrance examinations. In this environment, schools that have a tuition fee, no entrance requirements, and possibly based in another country, may be diploma mills, particularly when they match other criteria in this list.
  • Unusual academic subjects. Instead of "hard sciences", where competence is easier to verify, the subjects are esoteric and may be based on a pseudoscience, e.g. astrology, natural healing, and religious literature. This makes external verification impossible, because when they define their science, they can also define the educational standards without external oversight.

Legal considerations

Degrees and diplomas issued by diploma mills have been used to obtain employment, raises, or clients. Even if issuing or receiving a diploma mill qualification is legal, passing it off as an accredited one for personal gain is a crime in many jurisdictions. In some cases the diploma mill may itself be guilty of an offense, if it knew or ought to have known that the qualifications it issues are used for fraudulent purposes. Diploma mills could also be guilty of fraud if they mislead customers into believing that the qualifications they issue are accredited or recognized, or make false claims that they will lead to career advancement, and accept money on the basis of these claims.

Some unaccredited institutions include disclaimers in respect of accreditation in the small print of their contracts.

Fake degrees are risky for buyers and consumers, says John Bear, a distance learning and diploma mills expert. "It is like putting a time bomb in your résumé. It could go off at any time, with dire consequences. The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily. And -- particularly if their "degree" is health-related -- their clients may be seriously harmed."


In Australia it is a criminal offense to call an institution a university, or issue university degrees, without authorization through an act of federal or state parliaments.

Under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, corporations wishing to use the term "university" require approval from the Minister for Education, Science and Training.

The corporate regulator ASIC places strict controls on corporations wishing to use the term "university" and the name must not imply a connection with an existing university (e.g. University Avenue Newsagent Pty Ltd) and the applicant does not intend to provide education services.

The Corporations Regulations 2001 lists the 39 academic organisations permitted to use the title "university".

The use of higher education terms (such as "degree") is protected in state legislation, e.g. Higher Education (Qld) Act 2003.

Specific penalties are given within the individual acts and more generally are also covered by the "Misleading and Deceptive Conduct" provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974, permitting fines in excess of $10M AUS.


In 2006 the Canada Border Services Agency reported concerns about "visa mills," fraudulent universities operated for the sole purpose of helping foreign nationals obtain student visas to allow them to enter Canada.


All universities and colleges are public institutions; universities are state institutions, and vocational universities are municipal organs. There is no private higher educational institutions and no legal mechanism to found or accredit any.


In Germany it is a criminal offense to call an institution a university, a Fachhochschule, or issue academic degrees, without authorization through an act of the respective state's Ministry of Education. It is also a criminal offense to falsely claim a degree in Germany if it does not meet accredited approval.

Some corporate training programs in Germany use the English term "corporate university". Although such use of the term might be argued to be illegal, in practice it is tolerated since everyone understands that such programs are not actual universities.

Hong Kong

It is illegal under Hong Kong law's Chap. 320 Post Secondary Colleges Ordinance Sec. 8 to use the word 'University' unless approved by Chief Executive in Council.

Under HK Laws. Chap 200 Crimes Ordinance, Section 73, anyone who knowingly used false documents with the intention of inducing somebody to accept it as genuine, "is liable for a 14 years imprisonment term". Section 76 outlines that anyone who make or possess machines that creates false documents are also liable for 14 years jail time.


The University Grants Commission states, in section 22 of the University Grants Commission Act of 1956:


Legitimate higher education qualifications in Ireland are placed on, or formally aligned, with the National Framework of Qualifications. This framework was established by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland in accordance with the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act (1999). It is illegal under the Universities Act (1997) for any body offering higher education services to use the term "university" without the permission of the Minister for Education and Science. It is likewise illegal under the Institutes of Technologies Acts (1992-2006) to use the term "institute of technology" or "regional technology college" without permission.


In Malaysia, it is an offense under the Section 71 of the Education Act 1996 to :

and Section 72 prescribes a fine not exceeding fifty thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to both .

Apart from the penalties prescribed by the Act above, other laws that regulate the establishment of universities prescribe various other penalties:

  • Universities and University Colleges Act 1971

Section 23 makes it an offense to :
"establish, form or promote or do anything or carry on any activities for the purpose of establishing or forming or promoting the establishment or formation of a University or University College otherwise than in accordance with the provisions of this Act or any other written law regulating its establishment"
prescribing a fine of ten thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term of five years or to both upon conviction.

Section 24 makes it an offence to :
"establish, manage or maintain a higher educational institution with the status of University or University College"
and/or to
"issue to or confer on any person any degree or diploma purporting to be degree or diploma issued or conferred by a University or University College" unless it "is in accordance with the provisions of this Act or any other written law regulating its establishment"
prescribing a fine of five thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term of three years or to both upon conviction.

  • Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996

Section 76 of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act makes it an offence to :
"establish, form, promote, operate, manage or maintain a private higher educational institution by the use of the word University, University College or branch campus"
prescribing a fine not exceeding two hundred thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both upon conviction.

Section 44 of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act provides that :
"only a private higher educational institution with the status of a University or a University College or a branch campus may award degrees"
and Section 77 makes it an offence :
"private higher educational institution which conducts any course of study or training programme for which a certificate, diploma or degree is awarded contrary to the provisions of Section 44"
prescribing a fine not exceeding two hundred thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both upon conviction.

Furthermore, all legitimate higher education qualifications are placed on, or formally affiliated with the Malaysian Qualifications Framework under the provisions of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency Act 2007 . Limited exemptions are however granted to organizations and institutions "where the teaching is confined exclusively to the teaching of any religion" or "any place declared by the Minister by notification in the Gazette not to be an educational institution" under the Education Act 1996 .


In July 2007, the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) of Mexico issued an alert listing eleven institutions that are unaccredited in Mexico: Atlantic International University, Pacific Western University, Endicott College (Endicott College in Massachusetts is fully accredited.), Alliant International University, United States International University, Newport University (not to be confused with University of Wales, Newport), Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Westbridge University, West Coast University, Bircham International University, and Vision International University.

Some of them were alleged to be committing academic fraud, through the issuance of degrees for a price after short durations (between seven and 60 days).

The Secretariat announced a public relations campaign to warn employers, students and parents of prospective students against this form of fraud. In future, Mexican private universities would be required to include official government registration information, including numbers and dates, in all publicity materials.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Education Act prohibits use of the terms "degree" and "university" by institutions other than the country's eight accredited universities. In 2004 authorities announced their intention to take action against unaccredited schools using the words "degree" and "university," including the University of Newlands, an unaccredited distance-learning provider based in the Wellington suburb of Newlands. Other unaccredited New Zealand institutions reported to be using the word "university" included the New Zealand University of Golf in Auckland, the online Tawa-Linden and Tauranga Universities of the Third Age, and the Southern University of New Zealand. Newlands owner Rochelle M. Forrester said she would consider removing the word "university" from the name of her institution in order to comply with the law.


The National University Commission (NUC) was formed in 1999 to clamp down on diploma mill activity in the country. A concentrated effort by the NUC has resulted in a significant drop in diploma mill activity in Nigeria. An International Higher Education article states, "Attainment of the Nigerian vision of being one of the top 20 economies by 2020 will be compromised by the injection of such poor-quality graduates into the economy. Herein lies the distaste for and the raison d'etre for government's clampdown on degree mills."

"In Nigeria, online degrees from unaccredited institutions are banned and employers are not supposed to accept fraudulent degrees."


Section five of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines criminalizes the act of "Falsification of medical certificates, certificates of merit or services and the like. Despite this, news and magazine articles appear from time to time reporting businesses operating along Recto Street in Manila which offer fake documents for sale.


There is a long-lasting reputation of lower teaching standards and easier entrance requirements in many public polytechnic, and especially private institutions, which may seem rather relaxed. A number of scandals, suspicions and affairs involving private higher education institutions (for example, major private universities like Universidade Moderna (1998), Universidade Independente (2007) and Universidade Internacional (2007), among others), and a general perception of many of those institutions as having a tendentially relaxed teaching style with less rigorous criteria, have contributed to their poor reputation which originated a state-run inspection of private higher education institutions in 2007. Many private and polytechnic institutions did not provide degree programs of academic integrity comparable to those of Portuguese state-run traditional universities. In the late 1990s and 2000s, there was a growing effort to define nonaccredited universities and other less reputable institutions as diploma mills, in order to raise awareness about the problem. Since 2007, the State has adopted more stringent rules for private degree-conferring institutions.

South Korea

It is illegal to falsely claim a degree in South Korea if it does not meet accredited approval. For example, in March 2006 prosecutors in Seoul were reported to have "broken up a crime ring selling bogus music diplomas from Russia, which helped many land university jobs and seats in orchestras. People who falsely used these degrees were criminally charged.

Early 2007, Shin, Jung Ah (native 신정아) has been criminally charged for forging and misusing a degree from Yale University. This led to domino reactions due to her career status as a Professor in Dong-kuk University along with a curator position at an art gallery known to have many ties with both economical and political figures.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka until 1999 only state universities could grant degrees, however amendments to the Universities Act that year gave certain institutions other than state universities power to grant degrees. This ability to grant degrees is established by an Act of Parliament (rare) or given by the University Grants Commission. Universities can be established only by a an act of parliament, to date no private university as been established in Sri Lanka.


In June 2007 the Swedish Minister for Employment, Sven-Otto Littorin, was discovered to have an MBA degree from Fairfax University. Aware that claiming an MBA from this diploma mill would be illegal in many states in the USA, Littorin tried to convince the Swedish media and people that the MBA was granted to him in good order. Probably due to the fact that he did not let anyone peer review his thesis, he was eventually forced to remove the reference from his official CV, but he remained in office.


In federal law, qualifications from federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Zurich, EPF Lausanne) and those from Fachhochschule-institutions are protected and it is a criminal offense, under unfair competition legislation, to use any unfounded academic or occupational qualifications. The mere keeping of such a title, however, is legal. Thus, one can call oneself a LL.M., but must not use when competing for clients.

There are three notable diploma mills in Switzerland: Freie Universität Teufen, Freie Universität Herisau and Freie Universität Zug.

United Kingdom

In the UK it is illegal to offer something that may be mistaken for a UK degree unless the awarding body is on a list maintained by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. This is difficult to enforce on the Internet, where a site may be based abroad. However, UK Trading Standards officers have had notable success in countering a large diploma mill group based abroad that was using British place-names for its "universities".

United States of America

The United States does not have a federal law that would unambiguously prohibit diploma mills, and the term "university" is not legally protected. As a result, the United States is a diploma mill haven from a global viewpoint. The United States Department of Education lacks direct plenary authority to regulate schools and, consequently, the quality of an institution's degree. Under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education that they accredit.

Diploma mills are mainly found in the U.S. jurisdictions which have not adopted tough laws to prohibit them. Also, some degree mills have taken advantage of the U.S. Constitution's protection of religion by representing themselves as Bible colleges, since in many jurisdictions religious institutions can legally offer degrees in religious subjects without government regulation. Nevertheless, some religious colleges and seminaries have been fined for issuing degrees without meeting educational requirements. In fact it has been noted that:

Fraudulent educational institutions continue to proliferate. These diploma mills survive by operating in states with lax law governing schools, such as California, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana. They assume identities of well-known schools or as "religious" organizations. Because of constitutional safeguards in the United States guarantee separation of church and state, most states have been reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches, including their right to grant degrees. John Bear has asked, "What about a school that requires a five-page dissertation before awarding the Doctorate? Nobody seems to want the government stepping in to evaluate doctoral dissertations before permitting schools to grant degrees.

Although the DipScam operation in the 1980s led to a decline in diploma mill activity across the United States, the lack of further action by law enforcement, uneven state laws, and the rise of the Internet have combined to reverse many of the gains made in previous years.

A 2002 Seattle Times article noted that some believed Wyoming had "become a haven for diploma mills. Conversely, "Oregon, New Jersey, and North Dakota have adopted tough laws that include fines and jail time for using fake degrees to gain employment.

In 2004, a housecat named Colby Nolan was awarded an "Executive MBA" by Texas-based Trinity Southern University. The cat belonged to a deputy attorney general looking into allegations of fraud by the school. The cat's application was originally for a Bachelor of Business Administration, but due to the cat's "qualifications" (including work experience in fast-food and as a paperboy) the school offered to upgrade the degree to an Executive MBA for an additional $100. As a result of this incident, the Pennsylvania attorney general has filed suit against the school.

In February 2005, the US Department of Education launched to combat the spread of fraudulent degrees.

The state of Washington passed a bill in March 2006 "prohibiting false or misleading college degrees. The law was approved and introduced penalties of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for knowingly granting or promoting an unaccredited award. In Tennessee, a law that took effect in July 2004 made diploma mill degrees illegal, but the state does not have an agency or authority to investigate. Florida enacted a state law making it a criminal offense to claim a degree from an unaccredited college, but in 2003 it was reported that Hillsborough County, Florida, authorities had been advised that the statute was unconstitutional. Wyoming passed a law requiring a post-secondary institution granting degrees to Wyoming citizens to be accredited, or to be a candidate for accreditation. (There is an exemption for religious schools.)

U.S. jurisdictions where the use of higher education credentials from diploma mills and unaccredited schools is explicitly illegal or legally restricted include Oregon , Michigan, Maine, North DakotaNew Jersey, Washington, Nevada, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas.. Many other states are also considering restrictions on unaccredited degree use in order to help prevent fraud.

In June 2006 it was reported that the National Collegiate Athletic Association had been "scrutinizing the standards of nontraditional high schools to identify 'diploma mills'." Reportedly this started when "The New York Times exposed University High in Miami." Currently, there are 22 schools that are under review to make sure they meet NCAA requirements.

Government jobs scandals and GAO investigation

In 2004, Laura Callahan resigned from the United States Department Of Homeland Security after it was learned that she had received her doctorate from the unaccredited Hamilton University (not to be confused with the fully accredited Hamilton College in Clinton, New York). Callahan had previously been a senior director at the DHS and held supervisory positions at the United States Department of Labor and within the Bill Clinton White House. According to an article in Reason magazine, “The (Callahan) scandal raises serious doubts about the government's ability to vet the qualifications of public employees on whom the nation's security depends.”

The Callahan scandal caused a public outcry that stimulated an 11-month congressional investigation into fraudulent use of and reimbursement for non-qualifying academic degrees by government workers, the first such major inquiry since Operation Dipscam. A 2004 report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailed a pattern of widespread and ongoing abuse by numerous federal employees, based on information provided by three unaccredited schools that cooperated with the initial probe. The institutions, California Coast University, Kennedy-Western University, and California Miramar University, represented a small fraction of the dozens of suspected diploma mills in existence nationwide. The particular concern addressed was that the regulations allowing Federal funding of degrees mandate that the program must be accredited. Note that California Coast University has since gained national accreditation and is fully accredited by the DETC, which has Department of Education approval to accredit degree programs.

463 federal employees were discovered to have been enrolled in the three schools at the time of the inquiry. The Department of Defense had the highest number of enrollees, with 257 employees registered. The GAO also found that the government itself had paid at least $170,000 for questionable "coursework" by federal employees at California Coast and Kennedy-Western alone, and believed that even this amount had been significantly understated by the institutions involved.

The GAO report revealed that at least 28 senior-level employees had obtained their degrees from diploma mills or unaccredited universities, while cautioning that "this number is believed to be an understatement." The implicated officials included three unnamed National Nuclear Security Administration managers with emergency operations responsibility and top "Q level" security clearance allowing access to sensitive nuclear weapons information. In May 2004, NNSA spokesman Brian Wilkes told reporters that "the [managers'] conditions of employment did not rest on the education that they were claiming," and that the revelations would not affect their job status.

Many of the federal officials implicated in the scandal were never publicly named, and their status remains unclear. Charles Abell, the principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, was identified by the press as having obtained his master's degree from Columbus University of New Orleans, an unaccredited distance learning school. Daniel P. Matthews, Chief Information Officer for the Department of Transportation (which oversees the Transportation Security Administration) was reported to have received his $3,500 bachelor of science degree from Kent College (not to be confused with Kent State University in Kent, Ohio), a diploma mill in Mandeville, Louisiana. In spite of these revelations, both remained in their positions and continued to hold security clearances. Abell continued in his Defense Department job until August 2005, when he joined the staff of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, where he remained until 2007.

Terrorism worries

On December 15 2005, CNN aired a report on diploma mills and terrorism. The report explained that "H-1B visas can be issued to anyone who is highly skilled and can get a job in the U.S. McDevitt is concerned a phony advanced degree could be the first step for someone in a terrorist sleeper cell."

The report explained, the Secret Service "bought their own degree for a perfect terrorist candidate, although theirs was fictional." The person was Mohammed Syed with no formal education, but training in chemical engineering with the Syrian army. "The Secret Service even added to Syed's application that he needed a degree quickly, so he could find employment and obtain an H-1B visa, allowing him to stay in the US." Furthermore, "In less than a month, the imaginary Syrian army expert was notified, James Monroe University was awarding him three advanced degrees in engineering and chemistry, all for $1,277."

GAO - U.S. Government Accountability Office investigations revealed the relative ease with which a diploma mill can be created and bogus degrees obtained. Records obtained from schools and agencies likely understate the extent to which the federal government has paid for degrees from diploma mills and other unaccredited schools. Many agencies have difficulty in providing reliable data because they do not have systems in place to properly verify academic degrees or to detect fees for degrees that are masked as fees for training courses. Agency data obtained likely do not reflect the true extent to which senior-level federal employees have diploma mill degrees. This is because the agencies do not sufficiently verify the degrees that employees claim to have or the schools that issued the degrees, which is necessary to avoid confusion caused by the similarity between the names of accredited schools and the names assumed by diploma mills. It was found that there are no uniform verification practices throughout the government whereby agencies can obtain information and conduct effective queries on schools and their accreditation status.

See also




  • Levicoff, Steve: Name It and Frame It?: New Opportunities in Adult Education and How to Avoid Being Ripped Off by 'Christian' Degree Mills. (4th ed., 1995)
  • Bear, John: Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, Ten Speed Press, 2001
  • Noble, David: Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, Monthly Review Press, 2002, ISBN 1583670610

External links

General information and news

U.S. state sites

Accreditation databases

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