Degree Mills Vs. Legitimate Online Degrees: What’s The Difference?

degree mills vs legitimate online degrees

Introduction: Navigating the World of Online Education

While all students likely want a lucrative and fulfilling career as fast and affordably as possible, it’s important to be aware of degree mills and choose a legitimate online degree. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s explore the world of online education.

The job market is becoming increasingly intense and competitive. Numerous entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree at the minimum. Yet, not everyone has access to traditional on-campus degrees. 

Fortunately, you can now complete a college degree through online learning. But there’s one problem: the proliferation of degree mills. 

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The prevalence of degree mills has made it harder for many to distinguish them from legitimate online degrees. These diploma mills operate in a shadowy realm. They’re good at masquerading as legitimate educational institutions while offering subpar/fraudulent degrees. 

Understanding Online Colleges

Online programs were originally designed to cater to busy working adult students. But during the pandemic, when everything came to a halt, online learning emerged as a lifeline for education continuity for all types of students. Even after everything went back to normal, enrollment for online programs remained higher than in 2019. 

Recent NCES data shows that 30% of college students are enrolled exclusively online. Many students are discovering that online learning provides better benefits than on-campus learning. The top benefits of online learning include:

Flexibility and Convenience 

Online learning allows you to fit school around other commitments. This is especially beneficial for students with jobs. It eliminates the need to miss work or other obligations to attend a lecture. 

Moreover, online education is very convenient. You can study anywhere—at the beach, in the coffee shop, or at home—as long as you have Internet access. Some online programs may require campus attendance, but it’s rare. 


Online colleges often have the same tuition as their traditional counterparts. However, it saves you from unrelated educational expenses like housing and commuting. 

Another cost-saving aspect of online education is the availability of digital textbooks and resources. These are often more affordable or even free. 

What are Diploma Mills?

Diploma mills are unaccredited universities that sell fake degrees or diplomas. For some, these institutions are shortcuts to success, but they’re often worthless in the real world. 

Students can get a degree or diploma in these unaccredited colleges with little to no academic work. Some falsify documents to sell degrees and transcripts from accredited universities. And sometimes, amazingly enough, they will look authentic. 

Other diploma mills may look legitimate. They will also require students to put some effort into academics. Yet, they do not demand the kind of college-level coursework that would typically be necessary to earn a legitimate degree.

Diploma mills are sketchy online for profit schools. They operate with minimal oversight and accountability. The proliferation of online platforms has now made it easier for diploma mills to reach a wide audience.

Accreditation: The Key to Legitimate Education

There are several ways to verify their legitimacy, but accreditation is the most critical factor. This is true whether you’re applying for an online or an on-campus program. 

Accreditation is a stamp of approval from accrediting bodies recognized by the CHEA. It is an indicator that the institution meets certain educational standards and rigor. These bodies evaluate factors like faculty qualifications, curriculum, and student resources.

There are three main types of accreditation:

  • Regional accreditation has always been considered the most prestigious form of accreditation. 
  • National accreditation focuses on technical/trade and religious schools. 
  • Specialized/programmatic accreditation focuses on specific degree programs/departments. 

Here are other useful tips to help you distinguish between legitimate online colleges and diploma mills:

  1. Check the qualifications of faculty members. Legitimate online colleges are transparent with the credentials of their instructors. 
  2. Legitimate institutions often have physical campuses or offices. They may also have partnerships with other reputable educational institutions or organizations.
  3. Check for financial aid opportunities. Diploma mills do not offer any. 
  4. Be cautious of online colleges offering low tuition fees and quick degrees.
  5. Diploma mill colleges have aggressive recruiting and advertising. 

Risks Associated with Diploma Mills

The marketing strategies of degree mill schools are often deceptive. Due to the high cost of education and extreme market competition, many students fall into these traps. These schools promise promising, quick, and easy degrees. 

There are a lot of risks associated with earning your degree in a diploma mill. The consequences can be severe and long-lasting. 

Waste of resources 

Like traditional schools, diploma mills come at a cost. They’re sometimes even more expensive than public colleges and universities. You’ll also spend some time completing what is supposed to be “homework” and studying for “exams.”  

What you think is an investment is actually a worthless piece of paper. Credits from these institutions are non-transferable. If you complete an undergraduate degree from a diploma mill, you won’t be able to apply for graduate school in reputable institutions.  

Lack of credibility

With the rise of diploma mills, employers are becoming more skeptical of their applicants. Employers are increasingly doing thorough background checks of their applicants. A diploma mill degree will severely damage your credibility and chances of securing employment. 

If you do land a job in the field, your lack of training and education may become evident in the workplace. This will lead to poor job performance and, eventually, termination. You also won’t be able to advance your career. 

Potential legal issues 

Owners are not the only ones in trouble for diploma mills; graduates are also in trouble. In many jurisdictions, misrepresenting educational credentials is considered a form of fraud. You can be in a lot of trouble if an employer reports your fake diploma to the feds. 

You can potentially face civil lawsuits or criminal charges. You could also face fines, probation, or even imprisonment. 

Ensuring the Value of Your College Education

What is a diploma mill, and why should you avoid it? As explained, diploma mills are fraudulent entities that produce worthless pieces of paper. They prey on students who want it easy. 

If your only option is online schooling, be careful not to fall into the trap of diploma mills. Here are a few practical ways to ensure the value and worth of your college education: 

#1 Select only reputable institutions. 

Reputable institutions have proper accreditation, transparent faculty credentials, and a history of producing successful graduates. Earning a degree from these institutions ensures access to esteemed faculty members, student resources, and a well-rounded, career-ready education.

#2 Avoid diploma mills.

Diploma mills are deceiving. They often claim to be “accredited” when, in reality, their accreditations are from fake accrediting agencies. Visit the Council on Higher Education Accreditation to verify the legitimacy of any claims made by an institution.

#3 Maximize financial aid.

College costs are already high and are expected to continue increasing. Maximizing financial aid opportunities allows you to increase ROI.

Availability of financial aid is actually another distinction between legitimate online schools and online for profit university mills. The latter doesn’t offer financial aid.

Financing Your Education: Tips for Affording College

Colleges can be affordable, depending on your strategies. To have a seamless college experience, you plan how you will finance your education. Here are some tips for an affordable online college experience:

  1. Choose an online school with a flat-rate tuition policy. 
  2. Complete the FAFSA application early to have more chances of financial assistance. 
  3. Explore school-based and private scholarships. With a quick search, you’ll find plenty of scholarships open for all students. 
  4. Minimize personal and unnecessary expenses. 
  5. Consider student loans only if you’ve exhausted all other avenues of financial aid.

Conclusion: Making Informed Choices for Your Future

Are online colleges legitimate? Absolutely! However, be wary of online colleges with no accreditation from recognized bodies. 

It’s important to prioritize education quality over the convenience of earning a degree quickly. Always seek reputable institutions and avoid diploma mills to ensure that your degree holds value. 

Do whatever it takes to ensure a valuable and legitimate educational experience. Talk with an academic advisor, read online reviews and rankings, attend virtual tours, and more.