​Researching Academic Credentials

Potential employers should always research and verify education being claimed as not all degrees are created equal. Read below for more information on the different types of non-credible education sources and how you can verify academic credentials.


If you are a hiring manager or human resources professional, chances are you review applications and resumes from people who want to work for your organization or who want to be promoted. Some applicants may list credentials — like a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree, or a professional certification — that sound credible, but in fact, were not earned through a legitimate course of study at an accredited institution.

Although the majority of people list genuine academic credentials on their resume, some people are buying phony credentials from "diploma mills" — companies that sell "degrees" or certificates on the Internet without requiring the buyer to do anything more than pay a fee. Most diploma mills charge a flat fee, require little course work, if any, and award a degree based solely on "work or life experience."

Unfortunately, bogus credentials can compromise your credibility — and your organization's. You could place an unqualified person in a position of responsibility, leaving your organization liable if the employee's actions harm someone. You could hire a person who is dishonest in other ways, exposing your organization and colleagues to potential damage. And if the bogus degrees are brought to light, you risk embarrassment.

Signs of a Bogus Degree

Although it's not always easy to tell if academic credentials are from an accredited institution, there are clues to help you spot questionable credentials on a resume or application.

Out of Sequence Degrees. When you review education claims, you expect to see degrees earned in a traditional progression — high school, followed by bachelor's, master's, and doctoral or other advanced degrees. If an applicant claims a master's or doctoral degree, but no bachelor's degree — or if the applicant claims a college degree, but no high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) diploma, consider it a red flag, and a likely sign of a diploma mill.

Quickie Degrees. It generally takes time to earn a college or advanced degree — three to four years for an undergraduate degree, one or two years for a master's degree, and even longer to earn a doctorate. A degree earned in a very short time, or several degrees listed for the same year, are warning signs for the hiring official or the person doing the preliminary screening.

Degrees From Schools in Locations Different From the Applicant's Job or Home. If the applicant worked full-time while attending school, check the locations of the job and the educational institution. If the applicant didn't live where he went to school, check to see if the degree is from an accredited distance learning institution, using the steps described under ‘Checking Out Academic Credentials.' If the degree is not from a legitimate, accredited distance learning institution, it may be from a diploma mill.

Sound-alike Names. Some diploma mills use names that sound or look like those of well-known colleges or universities. If the institution has a name similar to a well-known school, but is located in a different state, check on it. Should you come across a degree from an institution with a prestigious-sounding foreign name, that calls for some homework, too. Researching the legitimacy of foreign schools can be a challenge, but consider it a warning sign if an applicant claims a degree from a country where she never lived.

Ways to Verify Academic Credentials

It is recommended that employers always check academic credentials, even when the school they're from is well-known. Some applicants may falsify information about their academic backgrounds rather than about their work history, possibly because employers are less likely to check with schools for verification or to require academic transcripts. Here's how to verify academic credentials.

Contact the school. Most college registrars will confirm dates of attendance and graduation, as well as degrees awarded and majors, upon request. If the applicant gives permission, they may provide a certified academic transcript. If you aren't familiar with the school, don't stop your research just because someone answers your questions on the phone or responds with a letter. Some diploma mills offer a "verification service" that will send a phony transcript to a prospective employer who calls.

Research the school on the Internet. Check to see if the school is accredited by a recognized agency. Colleges and universities accredited by legitimate agencies generally undergo a rigorous review of the quality of their educational programs. If a school has been accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, it's probably legitimate. Many diploma mills claim to be "accredited," but the accreditation is from a bogus, but official-sounding, agency they invented.

You can use the Internet to check if a school is accredited by a legitimate organization at a new database of accredited academic institutions, posted by the U.S. Department of Education.  To find out if an accrediting agency is legitimate, check the list of recognized national and regional accrediting agencies maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Look at the school's website. Although it is prudent to check out the school on the Internet, it's not always easy to pick out a diploma mill based on a quick scan of its site. Some diploma mills have slick websites, and a "dot-edu" Web address doesn't guarantee legitimacy. Nevertheless, the website can be a source of information. Indeed, federal officials say it's probably a diploma mill if:

  • tuition is charged on a per-degree basis, rather than per credit, course, or semester
  • there are few or unspecified degree requirements, or none at all
  • the emphasis is on degrees for work or life experience
  • the school is relatively new, or has recently changed its name.

Check other resources. There is no comprehensive list of diploma mills on the Web because new phony credentialing sources arise all the time. However, one way to check up on a school is to call the registrar of a local college or university and ask if it would accept transfer credits from the school you are researching.

Ask the applicant for proof of the degree and the school's accreditation. If you don't get satisfactory answers from the school itself and the accreditation sites on the Web, ask the applicant for proof of the degree, including a certified transcript, and the school's accreditation. Ultimately, it's up to the applicant to show that he earned his credentials from a legitimate institution.

Degree, Diploma & Accreditation Mills

These education sources and accredidation mills sell degrees and accreditation for a price versus having an effective learning program.Knowing how to identify these organizations is invaluable for both students and employers.

Ways to Verify Academic Credentials

In their quest for higher education and training, students and the public sometimes encounter "degree and diploma mills" − providers of educational offerings or operations that offer certificates and degrees that are considered bogus. They may also encounter "accreditation mills" − providers of accreditation and quality assurance or operations that offer a certification of quality of institutions that is considered bogus. Diploma, degree and accreditation mills mislead and harm. In the U.S., degrees and certificates from mills may not be acknowledged by other institutions when students seek to transfer or go to graduate school. Employers may not acknowledge degrees and certificates from degree or diploma mills when providing tuition assistance for continuing education. "Accreditation" from an accreditation mill can mislead students and the public about the quality of an institution. In the presence of degree, diploma and accreditation mills, students may spend a good deal of money and receive neither an education nor a useable credential. There is no single definition of "degree mill", "diploma mill" or of "accreditation mill" in higher education. Some agencies of the federal government scrutinize degree, diploma and accreditation mills, but this is quite limited to date. In general, a degree or diploma mill would not pass the approval process required by the Educational Approval Program (EAP). Similarly, accreditation mills would struggle with the pre-screening required by a recognized accrediting body.

The following link provides an explanation of the difference between EAP approval and accreditation.

Identifying Degree, Diploma & Accreditation Mills

Identifying degree, diploma and accreditation mills is not easy. A number of the features of degree and diploma mills are similar to familiar higher education institutions. A number of the features of accreditation mills are similar to well-known accrediting organizations. Nonetheless, prospective students, employers and the public can look for several indicators that suggest an operation may be a degree, diploma or accreditation mill. It is the presence of a number of these features taken together that should signal to students and the public that they may, indeed, be dealing with a "mill." A series of questions follows to help determine whether a provider is a diploma mill or an accreditation mill. In each case, if, for example, the answers to a majority of the questions below are "yes," students and the public should take this as highly suggestive that they may be dealing with a mill. In this circumstance, students and the public may be best served by looking for alternatives for higher education and quality assurance. DEGREE & DIPLOMA MILLS If the answers to many of these questions are "yes," the operation under consideration may be a "mill":

◾Can degrees be purchased?

◾Is there a claim of accreditation when there is no evidence of this status?

◾Is there a claim of accreditation from a questionable accrediting organization?

◾Does the operation lack state or federal licensure or authority to operate?

◾Is little if any attendance required of students?

◾Are few assignments required for students to earn credits?

◾Is a very short period of time required to earn a degree?

◾Are degrees available based solely on experience or resume review?

◾Are there few requirements for graduation?

◾Does the operation charge very high fees as compared with average fees charged by higher education institutions?

◾Alternatively, is the fee so low that it does not appear to be related to the cost of providing legitimate education?

◾Does the operation fail to provide any information about a campus or business location or address and relies, e.g., only on a post office box?

◾Does the operation fail to provide a list of its faculty and their qualifications?

◾Does the operation have a name similar to other well-known colleges and universities?

◾Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

ACCREDITATION MILLS If the answers to many of these questions are "yes," the operation under consideration may be a "mill":

◾Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?

◾Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited without institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?

◾Are high fees for accreditation required as compared to average fees from accrediting organizations?

◾Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by, e.g., USDE or CHEA) when it is not?

◾Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?

◾Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?

◾Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?

◾Is "permanent" accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic review?

◾Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting organizations?

◾Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

GED and HSED Information

Concerns over questionable academic credentials are not limited to the postsecondary education sector. There is great concern about individuals taking General Educational Development (GED) courses or obtaining a High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) from illegitimate providers. The Department of Public Instruction is the state agency in Wisconsin charged with overseeing GEDs and HSEDs. Additional information is also available from the American Council on Education (ACE) and the following ACE publication. ◾Online Programs Offering Unauthorized GED Credentials.