You are here

Diploma Mills: How to Prevent Employees from Buying Questionable Degrees

Client Alert

Many public agency employers provide education incentives such as education pay and tuition reimbursement in their collective bargaining agreements with their employee organizations to promote employee pursuit of higher education.  As a result, there have been a growing number of employees obtaining degrees from a variety of different types of educational institutions and in a myriad of ways, ranging from the traditional in-person instruction to online classes to credit for “life experience.” What used to take 2 or 4 years to obtain a postsecondary school education can sometimes be achieved in a matter of months from questionable educational institutions, leading to issues of educational legitimacy and educational value.

What is a “Diploma Mill?”

A “diploma mill” is a company that offers “degrees” for a flat fee in a short amount of time and requires little to no course work.[1] The United States may lead the world in number of diploma mills, and California is ranked number one with the highest number of fake universities by state.[2] In 2010, it was estimated that more than 100,000 fake degrees are sold every year in the U.S. alone, and of those, around one third are postgraduate degrees.[3] It is difficult to determine the full scope of the problem because diploma mills operate under the radar screen of legitimacy, but some estimate that diploma mills are a billion-dollar industry.[4]

How to Spot a Diploma Mill

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has responded to the growing volume of diploma mills by creating a website dedicated to consumer education on college degree scams.[5]  The FTC has identified the following signs of a diploma mill:

1.  The University Is Not Accredited, Or Is Accredited But Not By An Agency Recognized By The U.S. Department Of Education Or The Council For Higher Education Accreditation

Although many diploma mills claim to be “accredited,” the credentials are likely from a phony agency. These phony accrediting agencies – also known as accreditation mills – typically have prestigious sounding names, and a “dot edu” web address is no guarantee of legitimacy. They often claim to be “worldwide” or “international” agencies, and will imply approval by mentioning state registration or licensing.[6]

2.  Admission Criteria Consist Entirely Of Possession Of A Valid Visa Or Mastercard, With A Lump Sum Charge

Many diploma mills charge on a per-degree basis, whereas universities typically charge per credit or per course tuition and fees. Additionally, previous academic record, grade point average, and test scores are deemed irrelevant.[7]

3.  Units Are Given For “Life Experience”

Diploma mills grant degrees for “work or life experience” alone. Credit for career experience is a valid option at many universities that deal with adult learners, but no valid distance learning university in the U.S. will award a graduate degree based solely on a review of work, life, or career experience.

4.  No Waiting Time

Though there are legitimate schools that offer accelerated degrees in-person or online, earning a degree still takes some time. If an advertisement promises earning a degree in a few days, weeks, or even months, it is probably a diploma mill.

5.  No Course Work Required

If a degree is awarded without doing any work, it is most likely a diploma mill. Legitimate institutions – including online schools – require substantial course work and interaction with professors.

Preventing Employees from Buying Diploma Mill Degrees

California public agencies can discourage employees from obtaining degrees from questionable educational institutions by requiring proof of accreditation by an agency recognized by the California Department of Education and/or the U.S. Department of Education. By requiring that the institution be accredited by an agency recognized by the California Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education, or another similar agency, employers can ensure that the education the employee is receiving is legitimate and not a scam. Including language in the collective bargaining agreement that defines “Accredited Educational Institute” as “an educational institution accredited by an agency recognized by the California State Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education, or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation” could achieve the goal of preventing employees from obtaining degrees from questionable institutions.

Verification Practices

The public agency employer should also give instructions to its staff on how to research an institution’s website, what information to look for, and how to check the different education databases for recognized accreditation agencies before approving tuition reimbursement. By using discretion in pre-approving tuition reimbursement, the employer can further protect its employees and ensure that they are attending legitimate institutions.

When determining whether to reimburse tuition, the employer should:

1.  Require the employee to provide the institution name and accrediting agency when requesting reimbursement approval prior to enrollment in the program.

2.  Verify the accrediting agency on the institution’s website.

3.  Check the U.S. Department of Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the California State Department of Education websites to ensure that the institution’s accrediting agency is recognized by these bodies.

4.  Browse the institution’s website for the signs of a diploma mill, including admissions requirements, a list of courses required for the degree (if posted), the length of the program, and contact information.

5.  If still unsure about the legitimacy of an institution, the employer should search the institution on the internet for student reviews or other information not provided on the institution’s website.

Verifying the institution’s legitimacy will slow the tuition reimbursement approval process down, but by implementing these practices the employer can discourage its employees from attempting to purchase a diploma mill degree by refusing to fund it.

For further information, please contact Colin J. Tanner from Aleshire & Wynder, LLP’s Labor and Employment Practice Group at (949) 223-1170.

Disclaimer:  Aleshire & Wynder, LLP legal alerts are not intended as legal advice.  Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein.  Please seek legal advice before acting or relying upon any information in this communication.