Diploma Mills

What is a diploma mill?

Diploma mill: 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. —Webster's Third New International Dictionary

Substandard or Faudulent "Colleges"

Diploma mills (or degree mills) are substandard or fraudulent "colleges" that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work. Some are simple frauds: a mailbox to which people send money in exchange for paper that purports to be a college degree. Others require some nominal work from the student but do not require college-level course work that is normally required for a degree.

Among other activities, the Office of Degree Authorization (ODA) is responsible for terminating substandard or fraudulent degree activities.

Senate Hearings on Diploma Mills

The United States Senate conducted hearings on the diploma mill problem in May, 2004 and in September, 2004. For two days in May 2004, the United States Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (Susan Collins, R-Maine, Chair) held hearings to explore the problems that unaccredited, substandard colleges and universities, often referred to as "diploma mills," pose to the federal government. Witnesses included:

  • The Honorable Tom Davis, U.S. House of Representatives
  • Robert J. Cramer, Managing Director, Office of Special Investigations, U.S. General Accounting Office, and accompanying Mr. Cramer, Paul DeSaulniers, Senior Special Agent, Office of Special Investigations , U.S. General Accounting Office
  • Laurie Gerald, Former Employee of Columbia State University
  • Alan Contreras, Administrator, Office of Degree Authorization, Oregon Student Access Commission
  • Lieutenant Commander Claudia Gelzer, U.S. Coast Guard Detailee
  • Andrew Coulombe, Former Employee, Kennedy-Western University
  • The Honorable Sally L. Stroup, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education , U.S. Department of Education
  • Stephen C. Benowitz, Associate Director , Human Resources Products and Services, Office of Personnel Management
Senate Hearing Testimony May, 2004: Day 1, Day 2
Senate Hearing Testimony, September, 2004

Articles on Diploma Mills

The Chronicle of Higher Education published several well-researched articles about diploma mills in its June 25, 2004 edition. Online access to the Chronicle is available only to members, but a single copy of that issue may be available for purchase for $8.00 US. Contact the Circulation Department.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. How do diploma mills operate?

An extensive description of how certain well-known diploma mills work through the Internet and the Web while obscuring their owners' true identities. Based on research for ODA by Dr. George Gollin." See outline for details.

2. Why are degree mills a problem?

"Mail drop" degree mills are simply fraud, a way for unscrupulous hucksters to make money while providing no service. More substantive degree mills devalue college degrees by making them available without college-level work. This makes all degrees suspect and confuses employers and professional licensing boards that need to know whether a person has an appropriate educational background.

3. How can I tell whether an institution is a degree mill?

Most degree mills have certain characteristics. A good overview of these is available from University of Illinois at: http://www.hep.uiuc.edu/home/g-gollin/pigeons/. The Council on Higher Education Accreditation at has an excellent overview of the issue.

4. Are non-degree or non-credit classes regulated by ODA?

Some institutions offer classes in Oregon that may carry college credit but which are not intended to lead to a degree. Such offerings are not reviewed in detail but ODA does maintain a list of such authorized institutions. Non-credit training does not require ODA approval (except in some circumstances when offered by an Oregon-based public institution). In general, ODA does not investigate or regulate non-credit offerings. Contact the Career Schools office of the Oregon Department of Education regarding non-credit schools.  

5. Are degree mills legal in Oregon?  

No. Some states have lax standards that allow almost anyone to operate a "college," but Oregon has strong state laws that provide penalties for people operating degree mills. Nevertheless, some people try to start degree mills in Oregon. The Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Access Commission, exists in part to find and stop such activities.

6. If I receive or notice a solicitation from a college in Oregon that might be a degree mill, what should I do?

Contact the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, which will investigate the situation and either stop the degree mill from operating or, if the institution is legitimate and has, through an oversight, not gone through the state approval process, assist the institution to comply with Oregon law.

7. Are all unaccredited colleges degree mills?

Not all unaccredited colleges are necessarily degree mills in the traditional sense of the term. Some unaccredited colleges provide legitimate academic work. However, unless these colleges are approved by ODA, degrees from them cannot be used for public or licensed employment in Oregon. The reason is that state laws under which such institutions are approved vary markedly from state to state. Some states have high standards, some states have lax standards or no enforcement capability. Degrees from non-public institutions located in the latter states should be viewed with great caution unless the institution is accredited by a federally recognized accrediting entity.

8. Does an ".edu" address mean that a school is legitimate?

No. Some diploma mills and unaccredited schools have been able to obtain ".edu" extensions and there is currently no action underway to make them cease using such extensions. An ".edu" extension means nothing regarding a school's quality or legitimacy.

9. Which States are considered to have low or doubtful standards?

Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Alabama, Wyoming, Mississippi and California have either no meaningful standards, excessive loopholes or poor enforcement owing to local policy or insufficient staff. Degrees issued by unaccredited private colleges in Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi or Wyoming should be evaluated with great caution. In particular, Mississippi has no oversight standards.