Accreditation for Online Colleges: How Do You Tell Real Schools From Diploma Mills?

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Colleges and universities voluntarily go through academic evaluations from third-party accrediting agencies to demonstrate they meet established academic standards and offer legitimate diplomas. Unaccredited schools that don’t provide a real, quality education leading to recognized credentials are sometimes referred to as diploma mills.

If you are like most American high school graduates today, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about accreditation. You might not even have a really clear idea what it’s all about. Maybe a school counselor mentioned it once. And you see college websites bragging about it. In practical terms, though, it’s just not a big area of interest.

You have heard about diploma mills, though: schools that aren’t really schools, universities that feel like little more than a slick website and a credit-card processing machine. They offer a quick path to a degree, but the degree isn’t recognized in the field, or in the worst cases, a complete phony, just like the school itself.

Accreditation Goes Past The Limits of Legal Standards in Stopping Diploma Mills

State laws govern the licensing and operation of educational institutions that operate in their borders. However, not all states have stringent standards about educational quality. When diploma mills verge into outright fraud, they can be prosecuted. But some operate without breaking any laws—their diplomas just don’t mean what people assume they mean and most certification bodies and employers won’t recognize them.

Employers want to trust the general quality of a bachelor’s degree. They don’t want to have to do exhaustive follow-ups on every class for every candidate that applies.

This is where accreditation comes into play. Accreditation is the process that sorts out the real online colleges from the diploma mills. The reason you don’t know much about all this is because accreditation in American higher education has never been more reliable or effective than it is today. It’s been so effective you probably have rarely thought about it and may not fully understand it.

College is where you go to learn about all those important things in the world you never spent much time thinking about before, though. You put a lot of thought and energy into figuring out how to pay for college, so it’s worth spending a little time considering how accreditation can help you sort out questionable institutions from the real deal to make sure you get what you pay for.

The Death and Rebirth of the Diploma Mill

Accreditation is even more important when you start talking about online education. Building a real scholastic enterprise, hiring qualified professors, putting together a curriculum, lining up course materials all take a lot of work. Putting together a website that makes it look like all those things have been done is pretty easy. So online diploma mill scams started to become a problem around the same time the internet was taking off.

By 2012, the Federal Trade Commission had jumped in to reign in the wave of diploma mills that sprung up. High school counselors started warning graduates about the problem. Legitimate accrediting agencies also took a stand and started educating future college students. Mainstream diploma mills got squashed.

Today, diploma mills operate at the margins. They tend to prey on foreign students, who might not be as familiar with the American system of accreditation, or folks who are desperate and hopeful but don’t have the time or money for a traditional degree.

All these things tend to come around again. The community becomes aware of the problem, future students are educated about it and avoid the mills, and the problem of mills falls. But when the problem recedes so does the awareness and the mills start to find a foothold again.

What Is Accreditation?

Accreditation is a process of evaluation. The American model uses the same kind of successful peer review process you find in the hard sciences. That is, schools are evaluated by agencies or commissions that are made up of other schools. The idea is that other colleges are in the best position to evaluate educational institutions.

Accreditation allows students, professional certifying agencies and employers to count on the quality of the education and degrees a school offers.

Accreditation processes and standards have evolved over the years. Most accreditors now publish clear and uniform standards that schools are expected to meet in order to be accredited. Colleges are expected to document their compliance with the standards and provide proof to the accreditor. That gets backed up with on-site visits and evaluations by staff from the accrediting agency. Also, schools are revisited on a periodic cycle to make sure they are keeping up those standards.

The Department of Education lists four functions of accreditation in higher education:

  1. Assessing the quality of academic programs at institutions of higher education.
  2. Creating a culture of continuous improvement of academic quality and support the advancement of academic standards throughout the higher education community.
  3. Involve faculty and staff in comprehensive evaluation and planning
  4. Establish criteria for professional certification and licensure.

The standards cover everything from academic features like grading and appeals to administrative matters like marketing and student applications. The combination usually weeds out diploma mills entirely, since they don’t put any resources into academics and their advertising is usually deceptive.

Today, the growing pressures of economic insecurity and the demand for remote learning are all creating opportunities for a new in for diploma mills, and all new challenges for accreditors trying to keep up.

The COVID-19 Shake-up In Accreditation

Online schools were not in short supply prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020. But after the virus hit, every school was an online school.

That massive and sudden transition into full-throttle online learning was a wake-up call for students, universities, and accreditors. Although online learning had been tried and tested well in advance, and worked well for many students, it showed some real strains and disadvantages running at scale.

Even legitimate accreditation bodies realized it might be time to re-evaluate how they evaluate online schools. That’s probably going to increase some of the confusion in coming years over what is a diploma mill and what’s just a university trying out some innovative solutions to remote education challenges.

What are The Different Types of Accreditation?

There are two categories of accreditation recognized by the Department of Education:

  • Institutional accreditation – This type of accreditation is awarded to the entire institution, covering every degree and program that it offers. Usually, these are general accreditations, which focus on overall academic and administrative standards that apply to all university processes and procedures in every department.
  • Programmatic accreditation – This accreditation is offered only to specific degree programs at a school, not every degree. This is usually the type of accreditation that is found with specialty programs, like law or medical degrees. Specialty accreditation goes into greater depth than general accreditation in looking at specific curriculum and training requirements that may only apply in that field.

Diploma mills can take advantage of either category. The most common flag may be a school that offers a very specialized program in a field where programmatic accreditation would be standard, but the school itself only holds an institutional accreditation.

What Is a Diploma Mill?
Cat with graduation cap

A diploma mill is a college that isn’t really a college. They exist as a business that takes your money and issues a college diploma, without the trouble of delivering a full education along with it. Even the most budget-conscious student looking to keep education expenses in check will find no value in this kind of program. No employer is going to take the degree seriously, and the only thing you’ll learn is how to punch your credit card number into a web form. And forget about transferring credits from a diploma mill to an accredited college; reputable schools simply won’t accept them.

The entire process isn’t usually that straightforward, however. Diploma mills exist along a spectrum that can sometimes be difficult to sort out. Some operate only as fronts, running out a strip mall somewhere as a total scam. Those usually get found out and shut down quickly.

Others do offer classes, but the classes may not actually teach students the skills they need in the field their diploma is in.

It’s very common for diploma mills to offer credits for claimed work experience. Some legitimate colleges offer this option also, but the big difference with diploma mills is that they rarely verify the claim. In 2004, for example, a cat named Colby was offered an Executive MBA for $299 on the basis of a fake resume his owner uploaded. The kicker was that Colby had only asked for a bachelor’s degree… the EMBA was a free upgrade. No one at the diploma mill had bothered to check on Colby’s actual background.

How To Spot a Diploma Mill

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of trying to sign your cat up for a college degree, there are a few easier ways to spot a diploma mill before you waste your time with one.

  • Do they offer a degree in exchange for a certain dollar amount, with no or minimal class attendance required?
  • Do they claim accreditation but are not listed by the accrediting agency?
  • Are degrees offered on the basis of prior experience, without coursework required?
  • Are the costs of attendance way out of line with other, similar degree programs?
  • Does the time required to earn the degree seem short compared to other, similar degree programs?

One quick tip for spotting diploma mills is just to look at the website address. The Department of Commerce controls issuing domains with a .edu extension, and will only register those names to schools with a legitimate accreditation.

The final way to spot a diploma mill is more complicated. That is if they hold a genuine accreditation, but the accreditation is from a shady accreditor… often called an accreditation mill.

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What Is an Accreditation Mill?

Accreditation mills go hand-in-hand with diploma mills. They are organizations that claim to offer a full accreditation for online schools, but actually do little or no investigation or verification. For just the effort of filling out a form and submitting payment, any fly-by-night online school can get the blessing of an accreditation mill and claim to be fully accredited.

But because the accreditation mill itself isn’t a real accreditor, that claim is worthless.

Accreditation mills enable diploma mills by offering accreditation that doesn’t actually include real accountability for quality education.

Not all accreditation mills are completely bogus. Some exist on the margins and just have the kind of solid standards that they need to really weed out diploma mills. This kind of accreditation mill is the most dangerous, because they can seem to be perfectly legit, but occasionally let in a bad apple.

Overlapping accrediting bodies can also lead to something called accreditation shopping. That’s where a sketchy college goes looking for an accreditor that has the easiest standards to meet. They avoid the extra expense and scrutiny that a more competent accreditor brings to the table, but the educational quality suffers.

Fortunately, the system has another layer of protection to keep accreditation itself on the up and up.

So Who Can You Trust in Accreditation For American Colleges?

If accreditation itself can be faked, who do you turn to when deciding whether or not you can trust an accreditation agency? The academic community and the government both have some solid options to keep accreditation above-board.

The U.S. Department of Education Evaluates Post-Secondary Accreditation Bodies

The federal government has long been seen as the final and most independent arbiter for consumer protection. The Department of Education is not in the business of accrediting individual schools, but it has evaluated and recognized approved accrediting agencies since 1965. USDE oversees the postsecondary accreditation system by developing standards and regulations that federally-recognized accrediting agencies have to follow. These accreditors are determined to be reliable authorities as to the quality of the training or education being offered.

But it turns out the USDE can be subject to outside influences and outright mistakes, too. In 2017, the Department moved to roll back federal standards for accreditation. In 2020, they eliminated the distinction between regional and national accreditation agencies. Unfortunately, that led to the reinstatement of ACICS, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. USDE had revoked ACICS accreditation in 2016 over concerns about the validity of their standards.

Shortly after the council was reinstated, however, stories broke over its accreditation of an online university that turned out to have faked its faculty roster, had no office space, and appeared to have no active students.

In 2021, an independent advisory board recommended that ACICS have its recognition revoked once again.

Still, USDE recognition, whether it’s right or wrong, is important to students in one major respect: federal financial aid is only available at institutions accredited by USDE-recognized accreditors.

An important factor for online colleges is that USDE had incorporated distance education into its review of accreditation agencies since 1999. So any accreditor recognized by the department since then has to prove that evaluating online programs is within the scope of their expertise. Any accreditor recognized prior to 1999 but re-evaluated since July of 2010 will also have that designation.

CHEA: The Accreditor To Rule All Other Accreditors

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation fills the gap between USDE and American universities themselves. CHEA acts as a kind of meta-accreditor. Similar to USDE, it recognizes accrediting agencies on the basis of their ability to determine the quality of the programs they evaluate. But since the schools themselves are members of the organization, it’s a community-based standard.

CHEA’s membership comprises some 3,000 academic institutions. The council develops guidance on accreditation standards and tracks data on academic quality. It also advocates for accreditation with both business and government leaders. Finally, it works to educate prospective college students about the benefits and processes of accreditation.

CHEA exists precisely because of situations such as the ACICS controversy. The institutions that participate in CHEA share a concern over the politicization of accreditation decisions at USDE. Their goal is to provide reliable, independent, self-governing accreditation recognition within the academic community itself.

That independence means that not all accreditors recognized by USDE are endorsed by CHEA, and vice versa. But the fact that two major organizations are in this verification role gives you an extra layer of verification for many accreditors.

The Types of Accreditors and What To Look For

While programmatic and institutional are the only two types of accreditation, accreditors themselves can fall into other kinds of categories. Some of them offer both types of accreditation while others offer only one. Some of these are more susceptible to accreditation mill tactics than others.

These aren’t formal categories. Both CHEA and USDE provide a very specific scope for each separate accreditor that defines what they are capable of evaluating. But you will see the accrediting bodies lumped into these groups in various lists. They’re also useful for thinking about how susceptible a particular accreditor might be to diploma mill scams.

National Accreditors Work With Schools Worldwide

A national accreditor is the most general kind of accrediting body. They will offer accreditation to any post-secondary school within their scope in the country, or even internationally.

This type of accrediting body is usually based on schools with a common theme coming together to develop standards of training. Examples would be vocational training schools, like those behind ACCET, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, or the Council on Occupational Education, which covers a wide variety of trade-related schools – everything from welding schools to beauty schools.

Other themes that associate schools on a national level include religion, such as TRACS, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation.

Historically, national accreditors also often came into existence for professions moving toward setting nation-wide standards to be used as a basis for uniform licensure – including fields ranging from law to nursing. These types of accreditors are mostly considered to be specialty accreditors today, although you may still hear them referred to as national accreditors.

Many online-only schools opt for national accreditation since they operate on a national, or even international, level. Most accreditation mills fall into this category for the same reason.

Specialty Accreditors Uphold Standards in Professions

Specialty accreditors are also often national in scope. They are distinguished, however, in that they accredit only specialized kinds of education. This almost always makes them programmatic, rather than institutional, accreditors.

One example is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. ABET was established in 1932 to establish a basis of quality to ensure consistent licensing standards for professional engineers nationwide.

You will find specialty accreditors covering everything from acupuncture and oriental medicine to journalism to construction. In some cases, specialty accreditors have an important overlap with nationally-recognized, state-level professional licensing. Every state, for example, requires a doctoral-level degree from a program accredited by the American Psychological Association’s Commission on Accreditation before they will issue a license to clinical psychologists. The American Medical Association and American Bar Association fill similar roles for medical doctors and lawyers, and most licensed professions have some similar organization.

These types of accreditors not only have strong ties to the institutions that operate in their field, but also to professionals working in the field itself. They exist to maintain the strict professional standards expected in highly-specialized areas like nursing and medicine. Candidates can be hired right out of college with the assurance they have a strong baseline in the field.

It’s common for there to be only one specialty accreditor in any particular professional field, but some have more. In the area of business education, for example, there are three:

Diploma mills have been a problem in specialty areas in the past, but not often within the United States itself because of the strength of specialty accreditors.

Regional Accreditors Are The Gold Standard in Institutional Accreditation

Regional accreditation grew from the ground up in the United States. Universities in certain parts of the country came together to help differentiate their offerings from other kinds of schools. In the late 19th Century United States, there wasn’t always a clear distinction between high schools and colleges, or between universities offering general studies and more specialized normal schools that educated teachers, or schools that trained engineers.

By coming together and making membership in the accrediting body depend on meeting certain common standards, these regional bodies ensured a general level of quality in their areas. Students could count on a similar education and level of respect after earning a degree at any of those colleges.

Regional accreditation was long considered to be the gold standard for American universities. They remain the heavyweight in general accreditation for both public and private non-profit colleges. There are seven such groups recognized by both CHEA and USDE:

Regional Accreditor Region Colleges Accredited
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) California, Hawaii, American Pacific Territories Two-year, for-profit and non-profit
Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Central area of the United States, Arizona to Wisconsin All, for-profit and non-profit
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) Mid-Atlantic states, Puerto Rico, USVI, and Washington D.C. All, for-profit and non-profit
New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) Connecticut, Main, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont All, for-profit and non-profit
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington All, for-profit and non-profit
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) Southern states, Texas to North Carolina All, for-profit and non-profit
Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) California, Hawaii, American Pacific Territories Four-year, for-profit and non-profit

 

At their discretion, the regional accreditors may also offer accreditation to universities in other countries, particularly those near their region. NWCCU accredits a number of universities in British Columbia, for instance.

Although regional used to mean only regional, with each of those groups only accrediting schools in its designated area, in 2019 USDE opened up the field to allow regional accreditors to also operate nationally. This both introduced potentially healthy competition into mainstream general accreditation and recognized a reality that online education created. The truth was that all regional accreditors were engaging in national accreditation work already by accrediting remote learning programs from schools in their areas.

It’s too soon to tell what the other effects of this change will be, but it’s likely that other national accrediting bodies will continue to operate. More competitors in the market might only intensify accreditation shopping. And national bodies can make a good argument that they have developed their own expertise in evaluating certain types of colleges and remote learning programs.

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The Future of Accreditation and The Fight Against Diploma Mills

Accreditation as a whole may be changing in significant ways in the coming years. Not only has COVID-19 and the explosion of online colleges created new challenges, but other trends are pressing up against traditional college education.

The pace of technological change has been challenging college courses for decades now. Developments in computer science and information technology happen faster than curriculums can be updated. There’s no time to build standards in training before those standards are already obsolete.

The degree of specialization in technology is also hard for traditional accreditation to deal with. Highly technical fields like cybersecurity or data science require training that is insanely in-depth, but they don’t require the kind of liberal arts breadth that colleges are built to offer.

Further, individuals who want to upgrade their skillsets, in technology or out of it, are taking a more piecemeal approach than in the past. Not to mention that the conversation about advanced degrees always circles back to cost and how to pay for grad school. Often, today’s students opt for highly focused certificate programs or fast online classes to build out one particular skill in weeks or months, not the years that a traditional degree might take.

That’s created a big market outside of the university environment, with massively online open courses (MOOCs) in everything from Discounted Cash Flow valuation methodologies to reservoir geomechanics. Companies like edX and Udacity have jumped in to meet that demand.

In many cases, they’ve partnered with colleges to do so, or colleges have started their own MOOC offerings, including the likes of Stanford.

Colleges are also dipping their toes into the bootcamp market. High-intensity, highly-focused, extremely fast-paced online or on-site training programs don’t tick the boxes for traditional accreditation processes. Bootcamps pop up at the pace of new technologies and can fold up again just as fast. It’s not a type of education that a three-year accreditation process can accommodate. But there is a need for quality assurance of some kind.

That need means accreditation will continue to have a role in evaluating and recognizing online learning programs. As education itself changes, so will the scams. Yesterday’s diploma mill might be tomorrow’s bootcamp mill. The American academic community, the Department of Education, and employers will all be looking for some kind of accrediting process to protect consumers and the workforce from scams.