Resources for Psychology Students

Question: When is a psychology degree not worth the paper it’s printed on?
Answer: When it comes from a diploma mill.

The future for psychology majors is a bright one, with job opportunities available in a wide variety of fields and disciplines. Advanced degrees in psychology do open doors for highly specialized and well-paying positions. But not all psychology schools are created equally. In fact, some of them can absolutely ruin your reputation. These schools are known as diploma mills.

In reality, a diploma mill isn’t a school at all – it’s actually a for-profit company that makes money by pretending to be a legitimate college or university. A diploma mill, also sometimes referred to as a degree mill, will attempt to pose as an actual university and award degrees to its “graduates” while requiring little or no actual academic work from enrollees.

Basically, these businesses just print psychology degrees and dole out falsified transcripts and fake references to those who are willing to pay the price. And, for the right price, you can buy a fake bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree in psychology. You can even purchase additional honors like summa cum laude.

Where Do Diploma Mills Come From?

In the long history of higher education, online learning is a relatively new concept to most colleges and universities. Schools with online courses are constantly revisiting and expanding their curricula and programs to meet the needs of their diverse student populations.

Because of the constantly changing landscape of online degree programs and their increasing popularity nationwide, it can be easy for diploma mills to enter the virtual world of higher education unaccredited and undetected.

Scams seem to be rampant on the Internet, because the web makes it easy to run counterfeit operations and target unsuspecting victims. The websites of diploma mills are very convincing with quality writing and legitimate looking imagery. The barriers to registering a website with an “.edu” domain are lower than you might think, but many people assume all such domains are legitimate.

Couple all of this with the fact that it only takes a few basic resources – a laser color printer, a fax machine, a phone number, email address, and a professionally designed website – to set up shop, and almost anyone can start their own diploma mill spitting out psychology degrees.

But the School’s Website Says They are Accredited…

You have to remember that things aren’t always what they seem. Some schools that offer fake psychology degrees claim to be accredited by a group called the Adult Higher Education Alliance. This group is not recognized as an accrediting agency by the U.S. Department of Education. If you wonder whether an institution is accredited by a legitimate group, you can check with the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), the Middle States Commission on Secondary Education, and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) are just three examples of the agencies recognized as accrediting entities for distance education. You can find a more complete list on ed.gov.

What are the Warning Signs of a Diploma Mill?

A diploma mill generally gets just two types of customers. The first group includes people who are genuinely trying to earn a bona-fide psychology degree, yet they are fooled by the diploma mill’s imaginary credentials. The second group knows exactly what a diploma mill does, and they are looking for a quick and easy way to gain credentials they didn’t really earn. In order to avoid being taken by a diploma mill, look for the following red flags:

  • Diploma mills often use names that are similar to widely-recognized colleges and universities; however, they either fail to disclose the agency that accredited them or they report a non-existent accrediting agency.
  • If an institution changes addresses frequently, especially across state lines, it is probably a degree mill.
  • Remember what your mother told you. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Many fake schools promise degrees in record time. Some even brazenly promise to get your degree to you overnight.
  • Legitimate psychology programs have admissions standards you must pass to be accepted into their degree programs. If you are not required to submit verification of test scores or prove that you have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent, then you are probably dealing with a diploma mill.
  • With diploma mills, you rarely (if ever) have contact with your professors.
  • Diploma mills don’t charge tuition based on the number of credit hours you are enrolled per semester. Instead their rates are established by the type of psychology degree you seek.
  • If you receive unsolicited email from a degree-granting institution, it is probably spam and not from an accredited university.
  • Finally, if you are allowed to select your own grade point average (GPA) and/or choose academic honors for an additional charge, you are definitely not receiving a real degree in psychology.

How Can I Eliminate Diploma Mills from My Search?

Many people need the flexibility in schedule that online degree programs offer. There are real online programs offered by reputable universities. So don’t give up hope if an online degree is what you need, but make sure you thoroughly research the university’s credentials. If you have any doubts at all about a degree program, dig for answers.

Find out who accredits the psychology program, and check to see if it is listed with the U.S. Department of Education. Genuine programs are often affiliated with professional organizations and state licensing boards. Ask around and find out if the school is recommended by other professionals in the discipline. Don’t do all of your research online. Make phone calls and (if feasible) personal visits whenever possible.

How are Fake Degrees Sold?

It can take some really good detective work to find out if a potential school of psychology is actually a diploma mill. Their websites are full of testimonials and depict scenic campus life and distinguished faculty members. Many diploma mills try to reach you through advertising on various websites or by sending out mass spam email messages.

One thing is certain: they will try snagging your business with ludicrous claims. Their credentials often amount to nothing more than a slimy sales pitch. Look out for hyperbolic claims like:

  • Receive your degree in just six weeks.
  • Never show up for a single class.
  • No tests, papers, or admission requirements.
  • You are eligible to receive your MBA.
  • Earn your philosophy degree for just $499.

But How Do They Get Away With It?

In the United States there is no established federal law that unequivocally prohibits diploma mills from operating. Similarly, use of the term “university” has not been legally restricted at the national level, and as a result the United States is one of the most popular places for diploma mills to operate.

However, under the Higher Education Act of 1965, the United States Secretary of Education is legally obligated to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting organizations. Being published on this list means that the Secretary of Educations has determined the agencies are reliable authorities, able to adequately asses the quality of education provided by the colleges, universities and schools that they accredit.

In some cases, degree mills exploit the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment by calling themselves seminaries. Religious organizations are legally authorized to offer higher learning degrees in religious disciplines without being subject to government regulation.

The last time the FBI attempted to prosecute a high-status diploma mill case was in the 1980s. The operation was called “DipScam” – an abbreviation for Diploma Scam. There were several successful convictions during this operation, but scammers were not charged with running a diploma mill per se.

Rather, they were convicted of mail, wire and tax fraud. While the FBI and postal inspectors may still conduct investigations from time to time, they do not consider the prosecution of degree mills their highest priority (it is, after all, a nonviolent crime).

In addition, fraudulent universities continue to adapt in order to perpetuate their scams. They find safe havens in states lacking adequate school accreditation laws. States like California, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Utah are in need of tougher legislation to stop these businesses from capitalizing on fraud. By selecting names similar to those of other reputable universities, some people don’t realize that they are not accredited institutions of higher learning.

Still other degree mills operate in foreign countries. A recent trend has been discovered where degree mills operating in England sell fake diplomas exclusively to people in other countries, located in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia.

Proving fraud for these scheming businesses is no easy task. They work hard to shelter themselves from prosecution by actually admitting that they are diploma mills. It doesn’t make much sense on the surface, but by doing this they put the blame on the “students” or customers. Essentially, they assert that the customer knows the degrees are not legitimate and that they are only acting as a business – not an institution of higher learning.

That is why it so important for students in distance learning psychology programs to be their own advocates. Students awarded bogus degrees are unlikely to be able to use those degrees to further their long-term careers goals. Some could even find themselves facing more severe consequences, including criminal charges and convictions. For example, in the state of Oregon it is unlawful to use a degree from a diploma mill to earn a promotion or get a new job.

The United States isn’t the only country taking action against diploma mills. In 2009, the Brisbane Times reported that a thirty-two year old Australian woman was found guilty of using a fake diploma to get a job. She applied for an administrative post and used fraudulent paperwork she had purchased online for just $25 dollars to win the job. She claimed that she had earned a bachelor’s degree and a graduate degree in psychology. Her employer requested proof of her educational achievements. She eventually pled guilty to defrauding her employer.

What if I’ve Already Enrolled at a Diploma Mill?

First of all, you’re not alone. But if you find out you are part of a fake degree scam, you need to report it. Follow these steps:

  1. Stop all tuition payments immediately.
  2. Never list the fake psychology degree on a resume or job application. If you do, you put your own reputation at risk. Potential employers will make every attempt to verify your credentials.
  3. Write to the business and request a refund in full. Send it via registered mail or by some other method where you can get a signature and confirmation that your letter was received. Keep a copy of the letter for your own records. In all honesty, you may never see your money again, but it can’t hurt you to try. The formal request may also be useful if you pursue legal action against the diploma mill.
  4. Notify your state’s attorney general about the degree mill. As the state’s top legal enforcer, your attorney general may seek legal action on behalf of you and other state citizens.
  5. Tell the Better Business Bureau. When you notify the BBB, you help prevent the diploma mill from taking advantage of other people. The BBB may even work with you to find some acceptable resolution.

Unfortunately, if the diploma mill already has your money, you actually don’t have many options for getting your money back. You might find it helpful to publicize your grievance to help others avoid the same mistake. And you should certainly file a complaint with the federal government, either online or by calling toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC also provides a helpful video tutorial, titled How to File a Complaint.

About the Author
Angie Boss is an award-winning health writer and author or co-author of several books, including Before Your Time: Living Well with Premature Menopause (Simon and Schuster, 2010). She received a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Sociology and Journalism from Virginia Wesleyan College and a Masters of Pastoral Counseling from Union Theological Seminary.