What is a "diploma mill?"

A dictionary definition is "an unaccredited school or college that grants relatively worthless diplomas, as for a fee."

Alternatively, a diploma mill might be described as an institution of higher education operating without supervision of a state or professional agency and granting diplomas which are either fraudulent or, because of the lack of proper standards, worthless.

What to Look For

In today's Internet-based world, with hundreds of higher education institutions of all types offering their programs by distance education, it is often very difficult to know which ones are reliable and which ones are just after the money. Consequently, the more important questions is, "how does someone avoid enrolling in a diploma mill?" The basic answer is that you have to be cautious and you must do some homework.

In general, institutions that grant degrees but are not accredited require more investigation. Additionally, study at such a school probably involves more risk relating to acceptance of the credit and degrees by other education institutions and employers. Check their legal status with the state in which they are located. Keep in mind that all state laws and regulations are not created equal. Some are very stringent in their requirements and others are quite lax. Do not just assume that if the school is legal that the degree will be accepted universally.

Incorporating or registering with the Secretary of State does not convey legal authority to offer postsecondary instruction in Missouri.

Exempt Schools

Many states exempt many types of institutions from their licensure requirements. As a consequence, exempt schools, while operating legally, have virtually no oversight by the state or other independent organizations. Consequently, enrollment in these institutions should be undertaken with great caution.

Foreign Schools

If the institution is based outside of the United States, be very cautious as the laws and requirements of other countries are very different. Additionally, it requires considerably more effort to determine if the institution is really approved by its native country.


While ensuring you attend an accredited school is probably the best defense against falling prey to a diploma mill, even accreditation is not a safe haven. Unfortunately, there are many accrediting commissions that are little more than mills themselves. In order to be sure the accrediting group is reliable, you should be sure the accreditation is granted by an association recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

If you want additional information about accreditation and recognized accrediting agencies, click here.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a searchable database of recognized accrediting agencies and the schools they accredit.

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