What Is a Diploma Mill?

Doug Wintemute
Updated September 19, 2023
Edited by
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If you’ve heard the term diploma mill or degree mill, it was likely in a negative context. These schools essentially sell degrees, diplomas, and certifications to students, devaluing the qualification and the entire education process.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) defines a diploma mill as a school that “lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency” and offers qualifications that require “little or no education or coursework to obtain.” According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), diploma mills have been a problem since at least the late 19th century.

We’ll help you uncover more information about diploma mills and provide tips and resources for identifying and avoiding them.

Are Diploma Mills Legal?

The legalities surrounding diploma mills are vague at best. The responsibility to avoid these schools is often on you as the student. While no federal laws exist that outright ban diploma mills, institutions cannot legally sell or misrepresent fraudulent qualifications, as per the Federal Trade Commission’s rules.

Some states prohibit diploma mills from operating within their borders. For example, Texas law requires all schools to hold accreditation from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) or an agency approved by the THECB.

Furthermore, states like Oregon prohibit individuals (aka students) from claiming or using a degree from an unaccredited or unapproved school to further their education or careers.

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How to Spot a Diploma Mill search-circle

Identifying a diploma mill can be difficult, so you need to be thorough in your school research. Still, there are red flags that should set off alarm bells in your head should you spot them, including:

  • chevron-rightAccreditation information can’t be found or looks too good to be true
  • chevron-rightUnrealistic program lengths compared to openly accredited programs
  • chevron-rightVague curriculum and course details
  • chevron-rightLittle or no information on instructors and no evidence of instructor-student interactions
  • chevron-rightThe school advertises per-degree prices or discounts for earning multiple degrees
  • chevron-rightHeavy emphasis on college credits for real-world or life experience
  • chevron-rightUnorthodox campus address, such as a box or suite number

Not all diploma mills fit the same mold, and some accredited schools may have one or two of the above red flags. That’s why it’s so important that you’re diligent in your search. When in doubt, look for the school or program on the ED’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs or CHEA’s directory.

Why Is College Accreditation Important?

College accreditation is important for many reasons, including:

  • trending-up

    Quality Assurance

    Accredited schools and programs undergo a strict evaluation and monitoring process by the accrediting agency. Accreditation ensures schools and programs meet a high standard and encourages and rewards their improvement and further development.
  • trending-up

    Financial Aid

    To limit the reach of diploma mills, the government began restricting federal financial aid to accredited institutions in the mid-20th century. Most scholarships and employer tuition reimbursement programs apply only to accredited schools and programs.
  • trending-up


    Accredited schools and programs lead to qualifications that employers and other educational institutions recognize and respect. Depending on your field, accredited credentials may qualify you for industry certifications or state licensure. In most cases, the credits you earn can also transfer to other accredited institutions.

Spotting Fake Accrediting Agencies

While you should always look for accreditation, you must also discern between legitimate and illegitimate accrediting agencies. Be wary of accreditation mills — organizations that work in tandem with diploma mills and offer illegitimate accreditation for a fee.

These organizations often go under familiar names and use the proper terminology. For example, they’ll use terms like “council” and “association.” They may even list reputable institutions among their members to give them a veneer of legitimacy.

But don’t let this fool you. Legitimate accrediting agencies must be approved and recognized by the CHEA and/or ED. Without proper recognition, accreditation may be meaningless.

Online Colleges vs. Diploma Mills

Since most diploma mills operate online, you should be extra cautious when searching for online colleges. However, don’t let that scare you off of online colleges altogether. There are many accredited online schools and programs from some of the most reputable institutions in the world.

When looking for a legitimate online school, look for the following things, and you should have no problem avoiding the diploma mills:

  • Accreditation from a CHEA and/or ED-approved accrediting agency
  • Access to federal financial aid
  • Extensive course and curriculum descriptions
  • Faculty and facility information
  • Per-credit or per-semester tuition prices
  • A physical U.S.-based address
  • Credentials that qualify for you for post-graduate certification or licensure

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