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Fraudulent or Substandard degrees

Is an “institution offering fraudulent or substandard degrees” the same as a diploma mill?

The Texas legislature chose to use the phrase "institution offering fraudulent or substandard degrees" to describe the institutions from which consumers need protection. The phrase covers both institutions that intend to defraud the public and those who may not intend fraud but, by their substandard operations, accomplish the same bad result. In either case, they offer degrees with little or no serious work. Some sell the degrees through a web site or by sending money to a mailbox, often claiming to "assess your life experiences." Others require some nominal amount of work from the student, often in a traditional classroom setting, but do not require coursework as rigorous as that required by legitimate colleges.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines "diploma mill" as "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." Another term often used to describe these institutions is "degree mill."

Are institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees really a problem?

Defrauding the public by offering fraudulent or substandard degrees is a crime. Worldwide the problem is huge but, being an illegal activity, its cost to the public is difficult to determine. It has been estimated that this industry generates a half billion dollars a year. That figure does not include the loss of money and time by employers deceived when fraudulent degree holders are hired, promoted, or given raises; by state licensing agencies and employers, both public and private, to screen out fraudulent degrees; and by the public depending on the false claims of the fraudulent degree-holders when purchasing goods and services. In addition, the public is endangered when fraudulent degree-holders obtain employment in criminal justice agencies, or in public and private schools or health fields, such as medicine, nursing, or public health.

What are some of the warning signs that an institution may be offering fraudulent or substandard degree?

The number one warning sign:

  • No accreditation or claims to be accredited by unrecognized accreditors. Accreditation is the primary means of determining the legitimacy of colleges and universities in the United States. Fraudulent or substandard institutions usually try to explain away the need for accreditation or claim to be accredited by fictitious accreditors. Check with the U.S. Department of Education or with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for a list of generally recognized accreditors. Accreditors recognized by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board are listed here.

Other warning signs:

  • If it’s spam, it’s a scam. Legitimate institutions do not send out unsolicited email.

The institution:

  • Provides no physical location or postal address on the web site. Correspondence must be sent by email only. This keeps fraudulent or substandard institutions from being detected by the appropriate legal authorities. Legitimate institutions list their physical locations.
  • Is headquartered or incorporated in a different state or country from where the main campus is located. Legitimate institutions do have branch campuses, but the main campus is usually in the same location as its headquarters.
  • Gives a detailed explanation of the legality of its operations. It attempts to explain why it is above any oversight by a state or nation in an attempt to establish its legality. Every institution is located somewhere and is subject to the laws of that jurisdiction. Watch out for claims that the institution is “international” and thereby not subject to regulation. Many legitimate institutions operate in more than one country and are regulated by those countries.
  • Charges tuition and fees by the degree and not by the course. Whether charging $299 or $29,000, this is a sign of fraud. Legitimate colleges charge tuition by the credit hour (semester, quarter, or trimester) or by the course. Not all fraudulent or substandard institutions charge by the degree; some charge by the credit hour in order to appear legitimate. However, legitimate institutions do not charge by the degree.
  • Provides discounts for paying tuition in advance.
  • Offers to grant a degree or generous amounts of credit for life experience. Claims that one can receive a complete degree for one’s life experience are a sure sign of fraud. Calculating credit awarded by years of service in a particular job or function is also a sign of fraud. Legitimate colleges that award credit for life experience require extensive evidence that the experience is the equivalent of coursework taught at a college. The average legitimate award by that means will be approximately 12 to 18 semester credit hours (about one semester). Many students who are assessed receive no college credit.
  • Has no, or low, admissions standards. There is no requirement to submit official transcripts of high school or college completion, and no confirmation of the identity of the student. Watch out about giving personal information, such as your Social Security number, to those you do not know.
  • Claims its work is equal or superior to that required by other colleges.
  • Claims a degree can be achieved in a greatly shortened time than what is usually required. Claims that the degree can be completed in a few days or a few months are a sure sign of fraud. Look out for the “order your degree here” button on web sites.
  • Gives assurances that no one, or hardly anyone, ever fails a course.
  • Has the same, or similar sounding, name as a legitimate university, usually well-known. For instance, the fraudulent LaSalle University of Louisiana traded on the name of the legitimate La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Does not list faculty members or does not list the credentials of faculty members on its web site or online catalog.

Does an ".edu" extension of an Internet web address mean that a school is legitimate?

No. Some institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees and some unaccredited schools have been able to obtain ".edu" extensions. There is currently no action underway to make these institutions cease using such extensions. An ".edu" extension means nothing regarding a school's quality, legitimacy, or accreditation status. However, the lack of an “.edu” extension is a warning sign that the institution may not be legitimate and warrants further investigation before enrolling.

What is accreditation and why is it important?

Accreditation is a system of institutional self-regulation to assure educational quality. The review is conducted by an accrediting association consisting of institutions that have met or exceeded agreed upon educational standards. Accreditation is a system that has been in use for over 100 years to assure that colleges and universities meet the minimal expectations of educational quality. This self regulation assures that higher education professionals determine educational practices. Accreditation has been an essential part of the reputation the United States has earned for having the finest higher education system in the world.

Accreditation is “voluntary”, so doesn't that mean it is optional and not necessary?

Accreditation is voluntary in that the process of accreditation requires the full cooperation with and complete participation in the process of accreditation by the college or university seeking accreditation. At the heart of the accreditation process is a self-study prepared by the college or university demonstrating its commitment to the standards of accreditation.

Since accreditation is the primary means of determining the legitimacy and quality of colleges and universities in the United States, to describe the process as "voluntary" is not to describe it as "optional" or "unnecessary."

Isn’t accreditation an unnecessary means of assuring educational quality? After all, Harvard is not accredited.

Though the story is much older than the term "urban legend," that is what the Harvard story is. Not only is Harvard University accredited, it has been accredited for over seven decades. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges first accredited Harvard in 1929. In addition, Harvard Divinity School has been accredited by the Association of Theological Schools since 1940.

What is the difference between accreditation and state certification?

Accreditation is a quality review conducted by private associations of colleges and universities to assure educational standards are met. Certification is a quality review conducted by the state of Texas to assure that the public is protected from institutions offering fraudulent or substandard degrees.

Why does the state regulate private post secondary schools if there is accreditation?

The certification process establishes legal authority to operate, a requirement of all accreditors. The certification process also protects the public while colleges are seeking accreditation and protects the public from those institutions avoiding accreditation in order to offer fraudulent or substandard degrees.

Foreign institutions generally do not have accreditation, so how are foreign institutions evaluated?

The National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Academic Credentials created standards for interpreting foreign educational credentials and degrees from institutions located outside the United States. That Council consists of several associations, including the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), who understand the various educational systems around the world.

Colleges and universities as well as private foreign credential evaluation services use these standards to assess the degrees held by individuals who wish to use the degrees for employment or admission to colleges or universities in the United States.

There is no governmental oversight of foreign credential evaluation services, nor does the Coordinating Board recommend any particular foreign credential evaluation service. However, we suggest that individuals seeking to have a foreign degree evaluated seek a reputable evaluator. The Board notes that AACRAO has an evaluation service. Information about that service can be found at www.aacrao.org/international/foreignEdCred.cfm. Also, the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES), a professional association of private foreign educational credential evaluation services, may be of help in finding a reputable evaluator. Information about that association can be found at www.naces.org.


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