Diploma and Accreditation Mills: New Trends in Credential Abuse
March 11, 2011
Our U.K. strategic partner, Verifile Ltd. has published their 2011 report on diploma and accreditation mill activity and reveals an astounding 48% increase worldwide in the number of known diploma and accreditation mills in the past year alone. As the Internet is the primary home for these bogus education and accreditation providers, little action is taken to stop them from helping unscrupulous candidates deceive unsuspecting employers. This year’s Accredibase™ report examines the current status of the diploma mill situation and considers what can be done to protect the public and businesses.
Listed below is the introduction and first chapter of the 32 page report. The full report can be downloaded at
A doctor is someone to be trusted, a person who has studied for years to earn his title, has gone through rigorous testing and peer review, and is an expert in his field, right? Wrong. The title can be bought online from a diploma mill for a few hundred pounds or dollars – your pet rabbit can get those prestigious letters before its name. Wikipedia even publishes a list of animals with fraudulent diplomas1. Despite the light-hearted nature of these stories about pets with degrees, they demonstrate a serious point. Some unscrupulous operators will award a diploma or degree in exchange for money without carrying out any checks on the applicant, and without requiring any actual study – and people are really using these fake degrees to gain employment, trust and prestige.
Accredibase™, Verifile Limited’s database of diploma and accreditation mills, keeps track of the credential fraud industry that exploits the anonymity and ever-widening reach of the Internet to sell its wares. After a
busy year of research, Accredibase™ reveals a huge increase in the number of known diploma and accreditation mills. The database now includes 2,615 known bogus education and accreditation providers – an increase of 48% in just one year. In addition to the huge number of confirmed mills known to Accredibase™, new suspect institutions are discovered on a daily basis – more than 2,000 are under investigation by Accredibase™ for inclusion in the database. There can be no doubt that bogus degrees are a real and worrying problem in today’s society, given the number of sellers in the market. As Stephen Fry said on a recent edition of the BBC’s QI, “pseudo-credentialing is a big issue.”
In this report, we examine the current status of the diploma mill problem, revealing the global diploma mill hotspots. We investigate the new generation of bogus universities, taking a closer look at University Degree
Program and Belford University networks, the involvement of bogus colleges in immigration scams and the phenomenon of online high school diploma mills. We also look back at the year’s developments in terms of
legislation to combat bogus education providers and discuss what can be done to protect employers, educators and the general public from bogus degrees.
So What Are Diploma and Accreditation Mills?
Diploma mills are mostly online entities that offer substandard or bogus degrees in exchange for payment and not much else. Often these entities will grant a “degree” based on the submission of a résumé detailing life experience, and will even let the applicant choose his own subject and year of graduation. Others might require the student to do some work, but because of the lack of recognised accreditation or authorisation to grant degrees, the certificates are worthless.
Systems of higher education recognition and accreditation vary greatly across the globe, making it easier for diploma mills to confuse and deceive.
In the United States, authorisation to operate and grant degrees is usually issued by the state; however, accreditation is granted by private accreditation agencies. Accreditation agencies are considered “recognized” if they have recognition from either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Some states will only license institutions with recognised accreditation; others allow unaccredited universities and colleges to operate. The United Kingdom does not operate the same system of accreditation by private organisations. In order to grant UK-recognised degrees, UK universities must be given degree-awarding power by a Royal Charter or Art of Parliament. This does not apply to foreign universities operating in the UK; they can offer their own awards in the country as long as they do not claim to be a UK institution. Diploma mills should not be confused with companies producing fake certificates in the names of genuine, respected institutions. Forgeries have become so sophisticated that it can often be impossible to tell a fake certificate from a real one. Counterfeit documents are a huge issue for
prospective employers and educators, but fake certificates can soon be spotted by checking directly with the university or college in question, who will be able to confirm whether or not the individual is on the graduation roll. Bogus universities, on the other hand, will readily verify their customer’s credentials, so an extra level of diligence is required to weed out these degrees.
Telltale signs of a diploma mill include poorly made Web sites, offering a degree at a very low cost and in a very short space of time, and the opportunity to choose your own graduation date. Some diploma mill operators go to extraordinary, and sometimes bizarre, lengths to attempt to give their “universities” credibility. Hillmax University is one such example. Hillmax appears to be a clone of the notorious Rochville University. It is not, unsurprisingly, authorised to offer or advertise degree programs in Ontario, Canada, where it claims to be located. We noticed that the university was using an image of Brian May, guitarist for the rock group Queen, upon receipt of his doctoral degree from the recognised UK University Liverpool John Moores!
Diploma mills often surround themselves with other dubious organisations in an attempt to gain credibility. These include accreditation mills and even micronations acting as “recognition mills”. An accreditation mill is a bogus accrediting agency that is not recognised by the authority responsible for governing education provision in its country of operation. They offer accreditation for a fee and will carry out little or no investigation into the quality of education provided by the institutions they claim to accredit. They often choose names similar to recognised accrediting agencies, and will even falsely add recognised schools to their lists of accredited members.
Accreditation mills are often fabricated by the owners of diploma mills who are trying to deceive people into thinking their schools are legitimately accredited. Accreditation mills have been found to operate from the same address, and even have their Web site hosted at the same IP as schools they claim to accredit. We use the term “recognition mill” to refer to an entity such as a micronation, or individuals purporting to represent a micronation, that grants meaningless recognition to diploma and accreditation mills. Examples include Hutt River Province in Australia, and the Prinicpality of Seborga in Italy. Several diploma mills claim to be approved by Hutt River Province, a self-styled state in Western Australia, which is not recognised in any way by the Australian Government.
The Prinicipality of Seborga is a micronation located in northwest Italy, which covers an area of 15 km2 with a population of less than 400. A group of diploma mills including Pebble Hills University claimed to be located in Seborga and to be recognised by the Principality’s Department of Education. In fact, Seborga is administered by the Italian government and the “Principality” only has symbolic value. After a police investigation, the address used by Pebble Hills and 10 other institutions was found to be a room used as a cellar.
We use the term “recognition mill” to refer to an entity such as a micronation, or individuals purporting to represent a micronation, that grants meaningless recognition to diploma and accreditation mills.
We use the term “recognition mill” to refer to an entity such as a micronation, or individuals purporting to represent a micronation, that grants meaningless recognition to diploma and accreditation mills. Examples include Hutt River Province in Australia, and the Prinicpality of Seborga in Italy. Several diploma mills claim to be approved by Hutt River Province, a self-styled state in Western Australia, which is not recognised in in any way by the Australian Government5. The Prinicipality of Seborga is a micronation located in northwest Italy, which covers an area of 15 km2 with a population of less than 400. A group of diploma mills including Pebble Hills University claimed to be located in Seborga and to be recognised by the Principality’s Department of Education. In fact, Seborga is administered by the Italian government and the “Principality” only has symbolic value. After a police investigation, the address used by Pebble Hills and 10 other institutions was found to be a room used as a cellar.