It is no secret that education is critically important in a wide range of careers. Some roles require a bachelor’s degree or some kind of vocational certificate, and other careers, such as those in healthcare, require advanced degrees and specific medical licenses. Education not only teaches the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential in any career, but it also provides the foundational knowledge and domain-specific insights that help prepare individuals for work in a given field.

In the digital age, when nearly every organization has a website, it has become easier than ever for for-profit companies to masquerade as real educational institutions. Unfortunately, what may seem to be a bona fide certificate, diploma, or university degree on a candidate’s resume might actually be a phony degree from a diploma mill. 

When assessing and selecting talent, it is important to make sure the individuals you’re hiring have bona fide credentials and not fake degrees. Otherwise, their education credentials are nothing more than words on paper. Here are some key things to know about diploma mills, how to spot them, and how to leverage education verifications to authenticate candidate education credentials.

What Is a Diploma Mill?

A diploma mill, also sometimes referred to as a degree mill, is an organization that sells college diplomas and transcripts rather than offering a real education in exchange for tuition. Some diploma mills act as fake “universities”, while others don’t pose as schools, and simply create forgeries or “novelty” diplomas. Both types can often be hard to spot. Many have professional-sounding names and websites, when in reality, they are little more than money-making schemes.

According to an infographic by CollegeChoice, there are an estimated 400 diploma mills offering fake degrees in the US, raking in $200 million in sales each year. They offer bachelor’s degrees and certificates, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees. Besides charging anywhere from several hundred to thousands of dollars for a “degree,” diploma mills are problematic for individuals and hiring organizations. They can deceive prospective students by guaranteeing degrees in exchange for “life experience,” quick turnaround times, and authentic-looking degrees. Diploma mills can also deceive prospective employers. Hiring organizations can be duped into thinking the credible-sounding college name on a candidate’s resume is a real university, when in fact, it isn’t.

Hiring individuals with degrees from diploma mills can cause embarrassment to the employer, and it can also put people and organizations at risk. Imagine the potential risk to patients of a nurse who didn’t receive a nursing degree, or to customers of a company that hired a CFO with no education in accounting. Here are just a few real-world examples of organizations mistakenly hiring an individual with a fake degree from a diploma mill:


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How to Identify a Diploma Mill

Given that there are thousands of credible institutions of higher learning and hundreds of diploma mills, it can be difficult if not impossible to know at first glance if a candidate’s listed degree is from a diploma mill. Though some college and university names are easily recognizable—for example, Harvard, The University of Michigan, or Duke University—others are not. A diploma mill can have a credible-sounding name, and it might even mimic the name of a well-regarded, accredited university. For example, the former diploma mill LaSalle University was often confused with the accredited La Salle University.

It is possible to determine whether a candidate has a degree from a diploma mill, but you must be diligent both in terms of using reliable education verification resources and knowing where to look. Some of the signs of a diploma mill include:

Not accredited

Diploma mills are not accredited by an agency recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. It is important to note that some diploma mills form their own accreditation bodies to create the illusion of being accredited. However, those bodies must still be recognized by the CHEA or Department of Education to be considered truly accredited. Many diploma mills say they’re “licensed,” but being licensed to conduct business as an education services company is not the same as being accredited.

“Fast” degrees

Degrees and diplomas from diploma mills are awarded in days or weeks rather than months or years. There are typically no classes, exams, or other assessments, and students are often promised class credit in exchange for life and work experience.

Suspicious address

Diploma mills have no definite campus and may not even have a street address. Instead, they may operate from an email address or a P.O. box. Some diploma mills are located in remote, far-off countries, claiming to be exempt from US educational laws and recognized by unaccredited international bodies.

No faculty or staff

Diploma mills have flashy websites, but do not typically list faculty or other staff. Some provide stock photos of people with only names listed, but offer no background information about faculty qualifications, experience, or areas of focus.

Confirmed and reported as a diploma mill 

Thankfully, many diploma mills have already been identified and flagged as fraudulent institutions. Hundreds of confirmed diploma mills are listed on GetEducated’s independent Diploma Mill Police list.

The Role of Background Checks

Background checks are a critical line of defense in identifying instances in which candidates’ degrees are from a diploma mill. Identifying diploma mills during a candidate background check can save time and energy, helping you identify candidates who may not possess the required education or certification for a particular role. A thorough background check can also help to reduce the likelihood of discovering fake credentials after a candidate has been hired, which protects both the organization’s reputation and its stakeholders.

Background screening takes a multi-pronged approach to education verification, using a combination of database searches (CHEA and Department of Education) as well as email, phone, and fax verifications with authorized representatives of the college or university. A thorough education verification doesn’t seek to verify only the authenticity of a degree, but also a candidate’s dates of attendance, course of study, and graduation date.

Performing education verifications that root out diploma mills involves more than making a few phone calls. Many background check companies will make a maximum of three verification attempts, and if they don’t get a response, will close the case. Diploma mills aren’t always easy to spot, so it is important to work with a background screening partner that uses a variety of verification methods and makes more than three attempts when necessary. When you work with a reputable company that applies the necessary effort and perseverance, education verifications are more than a “check the box” exercise; instead, they are an important part of the background check, relying on research and follow-up to deliver actionable verification information.

Find Diploma Mills with Thorough Education Verification

Hiring individuals with diploma mill degrees creates organizational risk and possibly puts individuals in positions for which they’re unqualified. Whether you’re making dozens or hundreds of hires each year, it is important to have the peace of mind that prospective employees attended the school listed on their resume, and that it is an accredited college or university. With a background screening partner that does the necessary legwork, education verifications can identify diploma mills and help to reduce hiring risk.


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