When I was a kid, I remember seeing television commercials in which an actress named Sally Struthers promised the opportunity to train at home for an exciting new career in weeks. These days, bogus online colleges that claim to provide you with an authentic degree without stepping foot into a school are a new spin on this age-old gimmick.
It’s nothing new.
Thumb through the back of a magazine and you’ll see a dozen ads offering people the chance to earn a thousand dollars a week doing something as simple as leisurely stuffing envelopes in their spare time … after paying set-up fees to learn the tricks of the trade. Comparable work-from-home opportunities are slyly mixed in with legitimate want ads in the classified section, and internet ads for similar get-rich-quick schemes annoy me daily as I check my email and catch up on news at my computers. These “jobs” wouldn’t exist if people didn’t fall for them, and fake online colleges are around for the same reason. Plenty of people who don’t bother to research where they’re “going to school” wind up spending an awful lot of money to get a worthless piece of paper called a degree.
The terms diploma mill and degree mill are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinctive difference: degree mills provide degrees from fake colleges which do not exist, and diploma mills provide fake degrees from real colleges.
Degree mills are for-profit organizations which disguise themselves as legitimate schools. Many have names which are very close to the names of real colleges, in order to easily confuse people. One well-known degree mill was named LaSalle University, which mimicked the name of the legitimate La Salle University. The only difference was a space between La and Salle.
James Kirk, the operator of the degree mill LaSalle, served five years in federal prison for charges related to LaSalle and other various degree mills which he owned. Apparently running fake schools is a lucrative business, as Kirk’s wife continued to open and operate additional degree mills while he was in prison.
One warning sign of degree mills is the fact that they lack accreditation by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. They’re often accredited by agencies with very low standards, typically accreditation mills which are run in the same manner as the degree mill. It’s crucial to research the accrediting agency as well as the school itself if you are considering taking classes through an online university.
Degree mills usually have no physical campus, and their mailing address usually winds up being a P.O. Box or an address with a suite number, which is typically a mailbox at a UPS Store or similar facility. Degree mills usually have “professors” or “instructors” that have also graduated from the institution.
Degree mills can do more damage than draining your bank account. If you claim to have a degree from a fake learning institution, you could be found guilty of crimes such as fraud.
Legitimate online college opportunities are entering the mainstream as more and more “real” schools offer students the opportunity to complete courses without physically attending classes. When I was pregnant two years ago, I took a few classes online through Saint Leo University’s eCollege program. [Editor’s note: click here for more information on Saint Leo’s online programs]
Considering that the main Saint Leo University campus was located less than an hour from my house, I knew that it was honestly a “real” school. I also liked that fact that I was able to be a “Saint Leo student” for resume purposes and nobody knew I didn’t physically go to school.
The courses I took did cover difficult material, and the fact that I was able to take my exams at three in the morning if I had to was pretty impressive. Part of our participation grade was posting required responses to other students’ comments in class message boards. I still found it odd to “learn” without that physical interaction between a professor and the other students, but that’s my opinion. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes.
If you decide to give online learning a try, it’s important to research your schools of choice. StateUniversity has plenty of resources available, so go ahead and check things out!
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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