Distance Learning: Spotting the Scams

Staff Writer

Updated January 16, 2020 Updated January 16

The growth of distance learning has been accompanied by a number of scams, in which students pay for degrees that turn out to be worthless. Find out how to spot these 'diploma mills'.

Open your email account and in your junk folder there will likely be numerous emails offering you online certificates, undergraduate degrees and PhD programs from a million different institutions.

But how do you tell the ones that are recognized and respected from the ones that aren't worth the paper that you printed them on?

The simple answer is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. University degrees and qualifications achieved through distance learning courses and on-line study take time, dedication and hard work.

What's more, they require masses of self motivation over a prolonged period of time and any degree, certificate or diploma that can be bought which does not reflect this effort is more than likely a fake.

While there is no single definition of a 'diploma mill', these are generally illegal institutions that grant degrees in exchange for money, often without requiring students to show proof of course mastery, or completing substantive coursework or testing.

With the rapid spread of the internet, diploma mills have been appearing more frequently and are increasingly difficult to track. At first glance, many are difficult to distinguish from legitimate institutions of higher education, so it is important to check accreditation when choosing a program.

Equally, watch out for accreditation mills that seek to legitimize the degrees offered by the equally false diploma mills.

The US Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) produced the following guide for spotting diploma and accreditation mills.

Spotting a 'diploma mill'

If the answers to many of these questions are yes, the operation under consideration may be a diploma mill.

- Can degrees be purchased?

- Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?

- Is there a claim of accreditation from a questionable accrediting organization?

- Does the operation lack state or federal licensure or authority to operate?

- Is little if any attendance required of students?

- Are few assignments required for students to earn credits?

- Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?

- Are degrees available based solely on experience or resume review?

- Are there few requirements for graduation?

- Does the operation charge very high fees as compared with average fees charged by higher education institutions?

- Alternatively, is the fee so low that it does not appear to be related to the cost of providing legitimate education?

- Does the operation fail to provide any information about a campus or business location or address and relies, e.g., only on a post office box?

- Does the operation fail to provide a list of its faculty and their qualifications?

- Does the operation have a name similar to other well-known colleges and universities?

- Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

Spotting an 'accreditation mill'

If the answers to many of these questions are yes, the operation under consideration may be a 'mill'.

- Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?

- Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited without institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?

- Are high fees for accreditation required as compared to average fees from accrediting organizations?

- Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by, e.g., USDE or CHEA) when it is not?

- Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?

- Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?

- Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?

- Is "permanent" accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic review?

- Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting organizations?

- Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

The good news is that the proliferation of diploma mills has only come about as a result of the increase in distance learning courses offered by legitimate institutions and providing highly regarded degrees to worthy students.

According to educationusa.state.gov, more than 90% of all accredited US colleges and universities that have 10,000 or more students now offer distance education programs. The US Department of Education Accreditation provides a searchable list of institutions accredited by federally approved organizations designed to help students avoid online diploma mills. 

The United States Distance Leaning Association is also a good resource for students wishing to find accredited and recognized distance learning courses.

In the UK there are several organizations committed to providing information on recognized and accredited distance learning courses.

The Open University, which is the UK's only university dedicated to distance learning, has been delivering distance leaning courses for more than 40 years and currently has over 150,000 undergraduates and more than 30,000 postgraduate students.

Across the globe the supply of top quality distance learning courses being offered by well regarded higher education institutes is on the increase in response to demand.

If you are considering studying via a distance learning program it is worth remembering that the same amount of research, time and effort should be put into selecting the right course and institution for you as would be required if selecting a traditional university course.

This article was originally published in November 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020

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