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Online College Degree Mills: How Prevalent Is the Scam?


Are degree mills really such a problem?

Most people assumed not—until 2003, when the U.S. Government Office of Accountability undertook the first study of government employees who used federal tuition aid programs to  buy a fake college diploma online.

That study, “Diploma Mills Are Easily Created and Some Have Issued Bogus Degrees to Federal Employees at Government Expense,” revealed an epidemic of false diplomas and education scams.

The Congressional investigation uncovered 400 government employees, including upper echelon managers, who had decided to buy a degree using government tuition assistance programs or who had listed bogus colleges on their job applications.

The fakers held positions as high—and as frightening—as top security clearance nuclear scientists. The government list included doctors, lawyers and engineers.

In its special 2004 report on the college diploma mill industry, the Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that the market for fake degrees stood at about half a billion dollars.

That’s right: half a billion.


According to the Get Educated National Survey of Online MBAs, as of 2009 there were more fake online MBA programs in the U.S. than real ones. According to our survey, 168 accredited graduate business schools offer distance MBAs; 212 fake online colleges sell this very same degree.

In 2004, when questions about degree mills and the credibility of online colleges became the number one user-generated query at Get Educated, we designed and launched a free consumer protection service, The Diploma Mill Police (TM).

The Diploma Mill Police represents an effort to provide a trustworthy database and resource center on degree mills and educational fraud and college scams. Currently, Get Educated has archived information on more that 300 fake online college scams operating in the United States alone.


Unlike most countries, the United States federal government does not require that a college be accredited. No single federal agency has the power to enforce colleges to undergo a quality review for the purpose of accreditation or consumer protection.

In many states the term “college” or “university” is not legally restricted. This means that virtually anyone might legally declare himself or herself a “university” and begin issuing degrees overnight.

The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education both approve and recognize valid college accreditors, but neither agency can force a “college” to undergo an accreditation or quality review.

The United States has been content to leave the regulation of colleges and universities to each state. This means that fifty different states have fifty different sets of laws that regulate the higher education industry.

When a degree mill is closed by one state it simply relocates to another state.

One of the primary tricks diploma mill scams use to confuse prospective students is to tell them the truth (sort of). Most display this sentence in their materials: “In the United States there is no government requirement that an educational institution be accredited. Accreditation is a purely voluntary process.”

Sadly, this is a true statement.

CHEA also offers a definition of degree mills: “dubious providers of accreditation and quality assurance that may offer a certification of quality of institutions without a proper basis.”