Don't Settle for Shortcuts

Steer clear of diploma mills to ensure a quality education

by Tim Noble

Hard work and a good education have always been cornerstones of career success in America. However, in our fast-food, instant gratification, microwaving culture, some people are tempted to take shortcuts to obtain their academic credentials.

Although they have been around for years, diploma mills are increasingly gaining exposure in the internet age, using technology to bombard us with offers for quick degrees that can be obtained with little or no academic effort. Consumers should think twice before taking advantage of such offers.

To quote the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Consumer Alert webpage on the subject of diploma mills, "Federal officials say it's risky behavior: If you use a so-called ‘degree' from a diploma mill to apply for a job or promotion, you risk not getting hired, getting fired, and in some cases, prosecution."1

Webster's Dictionary defines "diploma mill" as "a usually unregulated institution of higher education granting degrees with few or no academic requirements."2 The state of Texas' Higher Education Coordinating Board more succinctly defines a diploma mill as an "institution offering fraudulent or substandard degrees," from which "consumers need protection."3

Based on this definition, Texas' Higher Education Coordinating Board has compiled a listing of such institutions. If you have questions about the academic merits of a school you are considering, its list and website would be a good place to start your due diligence process.4

You should also check the lists compiled by Oregon, Maine and Michigan through their respective state government websites, because they also track institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees.5-7

Institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees are typically placed on state lists such as these because they fail to meet the academic standards defined by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Do your research

It should be noted that all unaccredited schools aren't necessarily diploma mills by definition. Careful research on the consumer's part, however, is needed in the absence of accreditation to validate the academic quality of the institution the prospective student is considering.

Oregon and Michigan take this issue so seriously that they have banned by law the use of degrees from these types of institutions as educational credentials for state employment and licensed professions. Many other states are considering similar laws for both professional and civil vocations to prevent fraud and protect public safety.

Institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees tend to be from Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Alabama, Wyoming, Mississippi and California, as these states tend to have no meaningful standards, excessive loopholes or poor enforcement due to insufficient staffing.

Even though Oregon, Maine, Michigan and Texas try to update their lists frequently, new diploma mills can be easily set up overnight. So, how can you spot a potential diploma mill? You can reference the FTC Consumer Alert website for an excellent overview of the telltale signs.8

The FTC also points out that diploma mills often operate behind smoke and mirrors to the point of claiming to be accredited by official-sounding agencies they create themselves. States like Oregon accept accrediting bodies as being valid only if they are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

In the end, if you are still not sure, you can always check with a well-known, accredited college or university in your area and ask if it would accept transfer credits from the school you are considering.

Who gets these degrees?

People who obtain degrees from diploma mills typically fall into one of two categories: those who are misled into believing that they are obtaining a degree with academic value and those who are out to use these degrees to deceive others for prestige and professional gain. Either way, degrees from these institutions have no place for people who work in the quality profession or any other field.

The very nature of the quality function in an organization is built on a foundation of integrity, trust and credibility. Steps that add value to your career, like a quality education, still have to be obtained the old-fashioned way. They have to be earned through hard work, time and sacrifice.

As with any other major purchase, the phrase "buyer beware" applies to academic institutions. Don't jeopardize or tarnish your hard earned professional reputation with a degree of questionable academic value, because it might not be worth the paper it's printed on.


  1. Federal Trade Commission, "Diploma Mills: Degrees of Deception," www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt149.shtm.
  2. Merriam-Webster Online, www.m-w.com/dictionary/diploma%20mill.
  3. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, www.thecb.state.tx.us/AAR/PrivateInstitutions/FAQ.cfm (case sensitive).
  4. Institutions Whose Degrees Are Illegal to Use in Texas, www.thecb.state.tx.us?AAR?PrivateInstitutions/NoTX.cfm (case sensitive).
  5. Degree Mills and Accreditation Mills, www.maine.gov/education/highered/Mills/Mills.htm (case sensitive).
  6. Colleges and Universities Not Accredited by Council on Higher Education Accreditation, www.michigan.gov/documents/Non-accreditedSchools_78090_7.pdf (case sensitive).
  7. Unaccredited Colleges, www.osac.state.or.us/oda/
  8. Federal Trade Commission, see reference 1.


QP has a regular roundtable of "Career Corner" columnists. This month, however, we are featuring a contribution from a guest columnist.

TIM NOBLE is an executive recruiter and managing principal at The Avery Point Group, an Atlanta based national executive search firm specializing in Six Sigma, lean and operations. He previously was a plant management and global operations executive with General Electric (GE) and the Stanley Works. Noble holds a bachelor's degree in management engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and is a graduate of GE's Manufacturing Management Program.

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