Online Colleges vs. Diploma Mills: What’s the Difference?

by TBS Staff

Updated September 7, 2022 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

If an online college sounds too good to be true, it might be a scam. Knowing the red flags will help you avoid diploma mills.

Most diploma mills operate online. However, many legitimate colleges, including top-ranked universities, also offer distance learning options.

Fortunately, it's easy to tell the difference between a real online college and a diploma mill. For example, online colleges hold accreditation from recognized agencies, while diploma mills often fake their accreditation credentials.

Diploma mills are a waste of money and may even open students up to legal problems. This page can help you learn how to spot online college scams and identify legitimate schools.

What Are Diploma Mills?

Diploma mills grant college degrees without meeting any academic standards. For example, one online university granted an MBA to a cat for $299. These schools scam students who are looking for legitimate degrees.

Legitimate, accredited colleges provide an education that meets academic standards, while diploma mills exist to scam students. Diploma mills do not educate students. Some do not even offer classes. Instead, they often charge a flat fee for a degree.

Many diploma mills operate online to lower the cost of scamming people. It's best to avoid diploma mills.

What Does "Diploma Mill" Mean?

A diploma mill offers college degrees that do not meet educational standards or assess student learning. Instead of focusing on education, these scam institutions grant undergraduate and graduate degrees for a fee.

Are Diploma Mills Accredited?

Diploma mills do not hold proper accreditation. However, most of them list fake accrediting agencies on their websites to confuse applicants.

Why does accreditation matter? Accredited schools undergo rigorous review from independent, nonprofit accrediting agencies. These accrediting bodies evaluate schools based on their student learning outcomes, academic mission, and faculty qualifications.

Schools that fail to earn accreditation do not meet these standards. Applicants can avoid falling for scams by checking for a school in the Database of Accredited Colleges and Programs before applying.

Are Diploma Mills Legal?

Federal laws do not explicitly ban diploma mills. While the U.S. Department of Education publishes a list of accredited colleges and programs, it does not list unaccredited colleges or diploma mills.

Some for-profit schools do hold accreditation, distinguishing them from diploma mills. This can make it difficult to identify online college scams.

Attending a diploma mill can have legal or professional consequences for graduates, however. In many states, job-seekers cannot list unaccredited degrees or diploma mills on their job applications. In some states, listing a diploma mill degree on job applications is fraud.

Featured Online Colleges

How Can You Tell a Diploma Mill from a Legitimate College?

How does a diploma mill differ from a legitimate college, particularly when looking at online colleges?

Accreditation is the biggest indicator. If the program is not accredited by an accreditation agency approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), be suspicious.

At some diploma mills, students don't even take classes to earn their degrees. Instead, the school offers credit for life experience or grant a degree for a fee. In contrast, legitimate colleges treat education as their primary function, requiring students to take classes and pay on a per-credit basis.

Diploma Mill

  • Students pay for degrees. Some colleges offer degrees for as little as $100.
  • Diploma mills do not educate students. Instead, they exist to scam them.
  • Unaccredited schools do not meet any academic or professional standards.
  • Diploma mills may use foreign addresses to avoid U.S. laws.
  • Students receive excessive credit for work or life experience.
  • Graduates could face legal consequences for listing diploma mill degrees on job applications.

Legitimate College

  • Legitimate colleges educate students in their chosen majors.
  • Students pay a per-credit or per-term fee to take classes. Legitimate colleges do not charge a flat fee to earn a degree.
  • Accredited colleges meet high standards of academic excellence.
  • Enrollees at accredited colleges can apply for federal financial aid programs.
  • Graduates qualify for professional licenses and certifications.
  • Degrees from legitimate colleges meet entrance requirements for graduate school.

Online College Scams: What to Look For — And What to Avoid

With so many online college scams, how can students avoid diploma mills and identify reputable online colleges? Lucky, there are a few signs and red flags to keep an eye out for.

Signs of a Quality Program

  • Accredited by a nonprofit, independent agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
  • Provides information about academic departments, transfer policies, and degree requirements on their website
  • Lists a physical address and phone number for the institution
  • The website has a .edu address
  • Does not charge a flat fee for a degree; instead, it charges a per-credit or per-semester rate
  • Requires at least 120 credits for a bachelor's degree or 60 credits for an associate degree
  • Provides information about financial aid, including the federal student aid program

Warning Signs of a Scam Program

  • Promises a degree in a very short time; for example, a few months to earn a bachelor's degree
  • Lists accrediting agencies not approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
  • Charges a per-degree fee rather than a per-credit or -term rate
  • The website does not contain contact information, like a phone number or physical address
  • The website does not have a .edu address
  • The school name sounds very similar to a prestigious college
  • The school does not list its faculty or administrators online
  • The admission process does not require transcripts and only asks for a fee

How Can You Avoid Diploma Mills and Unaccredited Colleges?

Diploma mills and unaccredited colleges can appear in searches for legitimate programs. To spot them, start by knowing the signs of scam programs and how to identify legitimate online colleges.

Always check the Database of Accredited Colleges and Programs to verify a school's accreditation status. When looking at online college or program rankings, make sure the rankings only include accredited schools.

Students can avoid diploma mills by doing their due diligence when researching programs.

Featured Online Colleges

Bottom Line: How Do I Know if an Online College Is Legitimate?

Legitimate online colleges hold accreditation, treat education as their primary mission, and accurately assess student learning. In contrast, diploma mills exist solely to make money from unsuspecting students. Before applying to online colleges, prospective applicants should research schools and their accreditation statuses.

Remember: Unaccredited degrees do not meet requirements for many careers, and buying a degree can put you in legal jeopardy.

Diploma mills might masquerade as legitimate colleges, but informed people can spot the difference. Dig into a school's credentials, read up on its track record, and check it against accreditation databases. If you spot any red flags, cross the school off your list.

Learn more, do more.

More topic-relevant resources to expand your knowledge.

Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office