Fraudulent Degrees from Fake Schools on the Rise in the US Workforce

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College tuition is on the rise. Transfer students loose 40% of their credits earned at the first institution on average when they change schools. At the same time, an Associate’s degree bump’s the American worker’s annual salary up $3,100 on average.

As of 2017, about 98 million US workers are of working age without a complete degree, according to the American Council on Education. Of these workers, about 31 million of them actually have completed at least one year of college, but just never finished the degree. That means about 98 million American workers could have higher salaries and career upgrades, if only they had that piece of paper that said they earned an Associate’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree. Wouldn’t it be nice if those were just…on sale?

They are, and it’s a huge problem.

Degree mills sell credentials. These are companies that pose as legitimate academic institutions and commonly have names almost – but not entirely – identical to legitimate schools. These fake credentials are difficult to spot because they are specifically designed to fool employers, and also their own customers. Ever seen an advertisement to earn your Bachelor’s degree cheap and quick? It sounds too good to be true, and it is.

Degree mills are hard to track is because they exist largely online. They can claim to be anywhere. One big red flag is that the institution claims to be in one location, but the IP address is somewhere completely different. Of course, they can also claim to have another campus at that location. The rise of legitimate virtual colleges and universities, and virtual degree tracks provides the perfect camouflage for degree mills to proliferate. In fact, there exist an estimated 2,615 degree mills around the world. 1,008 of them are in the United States. These mills award fraudulent Associate’s, Bachelor’s and even Master’s degrees and PhD’s for a one-time fee that is a fraction of the cost of actually having earned that degree and investing no time and effort whatsoever into actually learning the academic content employers are led to believe they have.

An additional reason that degree mills are hard to track down is because there are also accreditation mills that accredit these fraudulent institutions. They function like degree mills in that they profit off of accrediting curriculum that doesn’t actually meet regional or federal standards, sometimes by a long shot. This adds another layer of perceived legitimacy to the illusion of the credential in question.

At ICAE, we and our members see the solution to the degree mill problem in two levels:

First, the problem must be addressed on the institutional level. Degree mills can proliferate because they fill a very real need of 98 million people in the United States alone who need a degree that they can’t afford – financially and in terms of time. ICAE members work with schools to develop curriculum that meets US Department of Labor accreditation requirements that also accommodates non-traditional students who have to balance work and education, and transfer students so that they don’t loose credits when they change schools. The goal is to design programs that make education accessible the population that would otherwise fall prey to degree mills, forcing degree mills out of relevance.

The second level is spotting fake credentials when we see them. Degree mills are so successful because their fraudulent credentials pass as legitimate in many situations. All ICAE members the conduct credential evaluations for college and graduate program admission and visa approval know how to spot a fake school, a fake credential, and a fake accrediting body.

Academic institutions need to address the degree mill problem on these two levels. First, make the effort to develop programs that are accessible to this large, vulnerable population that includes non-traditional and transfer students. Second, train college admissions staff to spot fraudulent credentials. Employers also need to understand how to spot fraudulent credentials, both to deter workers from obtaining them to get ahead, and to ensure that employees actually have the skills and expertise they claim to have.

To work with ICAE to develop curriculum accessible to the 98 million American workers with incomplete education, and to learn how to properly identify fraudulent credentials, visit

This article was written by Rebecca Little