According to the Centre for Information on Diploma Mills (CIDM), a diploma mill (or ‘degree mill’) is an internationally accepted term for any type of person or organisation that sells diplomas and academic degrees purely to make a profit and without requiring any serious academic achievement or study.
There are different forms of diploma mills, ranging from fully-fledged diploma production lines to small-scale internet traders. This does not only concern educational institutions but also students as diploma mills undermine the value of real degrees. As a graduate, you potentially compete with people who have not actually studied but simply bought the same type of degrees. Employers make hiring decisions based on degrees and qualifications but they might never find out if an applicant illegally obtained his or her degree.
Most countries don’t accept degrees obtained from diploma mills. In some countries, carrying such a degree is even illegal.
A diploma mill is often also referred to as a “degree mill”. However, a distinction should be made between those two terms. A so-called “degree mill” issues diplomas and awards degrees from unaccredited institutions which may be legal in some states. A “diploma mill”, on the other hand, awards degrees for little or no academic achievement.
Different types of diploma mills
The academic community differentiates between two types of diploma mills:
- Diploma mills that simply sell degrees for cash: In this case, both the diploma mill and the recipient know that the degree is not legitimate
- Diploma mills that pretend to be real schools: Those diploma mills pretend that they sell real degrees.
How do you recognise a diploma mill?
So how can prospective students actually see whether they are registering for an accredited study programme to legally obtain a degree? The CIDM claims that there are several characteristics which can be considered as an indicator or a warning signal for diploma mills:
- The address is a post office box, a suite number or a mail drop
- The phone number puts you through to a call centre, an answering machine or a mobile phone
- A sample copy of the degree is shown on the website
- You are offered a non-traditional education, credits for life experience, and the programmes are offered through distance learning
- Accreditation is claimed to come from an individual state in the US (Wyoming and Montana are popular), the government of a small island state in the Pacific or the Caribbean (e.g. St Kitts and Nevis), or from countries such as Liberia, where there is little or no government control in higher education
- The website offers no information about faculties, staff, study programmes, etc.
- Your diploma can be tailor-made to your own requirements, may be back-dated, and may be awarded the grade point average and distinction (e.g. cum laude) of your choice
- Credit card logos and other payment options are shown on the website
- The name of the awarding “institution” strongly resembles that of a well-known, bona fide university, such as Columbia State University (as opposed to the real Columbia University), Cambridge International University (as opposed to the real University of Cambridge) and Trinity College and University (as opposed to the real Trinity College)
Furthermore, if a diploma mill refers to educational activities, it will refer to their progressive approach to teaching and training as a way to counter arguments about their lack of education as being conservative and old-fashioned.