Learn how to spot a fake degree-granting school from a mile away.
Colleges and universities come in all shapes and sizes. There are big ones, small ones, and even fake ones.
Called diploma mills, these fake schools - which grant "degrees" to students - pose a very real problem, according to George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there are about two million degrees out there right now that are entirely fake," Gollin says.
Gollin first became aware of the practice in 2002 when he saw ads for "diplomas from prestigious non-accredited universities." His interest piqued, Gollin began an investigation that ultimately led to eight felony convictions and the inclusion of text concerning diploma mills in the 2008 federal Higher Education Opportunity Act.
Unfortunately, scheming diploma mills aren't solely responsible. There's plenty of blame to be passed around, Gollin says, from ineffective regulators and opportunistic students to clueless companies who hire employees with false credentials.
Still worried you won't be able to spot a fake school from a real one? Keep reading for more info on signs you might be dealing with a diploma mill...
Sign #1 - The name of the university or college sounds awfully familiar.
Just like with a counterfeit bill, the criminals who run diploma mills want their diplomas to look legit. They do this, in part, by coming up with a familiar sounding school name. The idea is to confuse people.
For example, Dartmouth University (not to be confused with Dartmouth College in New Hampshire) appears on a list of schools whose degrees are not recognized by the state of Michigan for employment purposes.
The state of Maine keeps a similar list of unrecognized universities and colleges that includes familiar sounding names like "Berkeley International University of Southern California" and "University of Berkley," both of which - surprise, surprise - have no connection to the well-known University of California, Berkeley.
Sign #2 - You can earn a degree in a matter of days, not years.
Many diploma mills charge a flat fee for a degree - with absolutely no work required, Gollin says. But there are some fake schools, he says, that require students to complete a small amount of work.
The tip-off here is that the coursework - which could be anything from a single test to a few assignments - can be completed in a matter of days and not the months and years that would normally be required.
In other words, diploma mills offer their customers a quick fix, Gollin says. "If someone is in a hurry to get a degree, they are not going to want to spend a month writing a 5,000-word book report," he says.
Sign #3 - Good news! Your life experience entitles you to a degree.
One of the sneakier diploma mill scams involves telling prospective students that their life experience (usually job or military history) qualifies them for a degree - or at least a whole bunch of college credits.
Gollin, who has degrees from Harvard and Princeton, launched his own investigation by asking a suspected diploma mill if his background in physics qualified him for a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Yes, he was told, for the grand total of $1,235.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national newspaper and website which covers the academic community, reported in 2009 that Kennedy-Western University was well-known for giving course credit to students in exchange for "life experience." On the heels of several well-publicized legal battles, the school changed its name to Warren National University before ceasing operations in 2009.
Sign #4 - The so-called school advertises through spam.
Looking for a red flag? A blinking advertisement on your computer could be cause for concern.
"If the school caught your attention through an unsolicited email or pop-up ad, it may be a diploma mill," warns the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on its website.
"Some diploma mills also advertise in newspapers, magazines, and on the Web," the FTC says.
Gollin first became aware of diploma mills when pop-up ads for Parkwood University infected his computer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002. He called the phone number on the ad and was soon learning about various degrees he could receive in return for nothing more than a fee.
Of course, reputable schools also advertise online, so the point here is to not believe everything you see and do your research.
Sign #5 - The school is unaccredited (or uses a fake accrediting agency).
School accreditation is a voluntary process used by most colleges and universities. The hope is to receive confirmation from an independent agency that your institution offers a high-quality education.
"This is the first thing that you should check," says Gollin, a board member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which helps coordinate the accrediting process for schools in the United States.
"Most of the time a school is not accredited because it's not any good," Gollin says.
But just because a school tells you that it's properly accredited doesn't mean it's true. The good news here is that it's fairly easy to check a college or university's accreditation claims.
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