Diploma mills sell counterfeit degrees from real, accredited colleges. Degree mills are similar, but they sell degrees from institutions that don't even exist. The terms are often used interchangeably, but the bottom line is the same. People who have not earned degrees can buy phony ones to get better-paying jobs. When the unemployment rate is high, these applicants may be taking jobs from others who put in the time and effort to earn legitimate degrees.
Employers Are Defrauded
Employers often have no way of knowing whether a job applicant's degree is real or fake, especially if the degree is from a known college. They may realize something is wrong after the fact, when they discover that the employee is obviously unqualified for the job. Most states have at-will employment laws, so employers can legally terminate an employee for almost any reason other than discrimination. Defrauded employers can usually fire an employee who uses a counterfeit degree to get the job, but they then lose valuable time and money in the process of rehiring.
Legitimate Institutions Are Shortchanged
Diploma mills shortchange real colleges as well. When students can buy a degree, there's no real incentive for many of them to devote money and time to earning one. Legitimate colleges may lose enrollment, and there's little they can do about it. With so many diploma mills out there, these schools can't sue every fraudulent company who is selling degrees and cutting into their enrollment.
Some Unaccredited Colleges Are Legal
Unaccredited colleges are not necessarily the same as diploma mills. Accreditation is the process by which states confirm that schools meet certain academic conditions, and it's voluntary. Most colleges seek accreditation. However, even if they don't, they still need government approval to operate by either federal or state law, or by a Native American tribal government. Diploma mills lack this approval. Although some actually require students to perform some basic work to achieve degrees, the work is not usually college-level.
State Laws Differ
Regulating diploma mills is difficult because state laws regarding them differ a great deal. Some states have more lenient approval processes for unaccredited schools than others. Diploma mills, especially those that require some minimum work by students, can set up business in these states and be relatively free to sell their degrees without punishment or risk.
Do Some Research
If you're a student looking for a college, and if the program and fees seem to be too good to be true, they probably are. A ".edu" extension on an institutions online domain name is no guarantee that it's a real school. Some diploma mills are able to get these extensions as well. Many legitimate colleges and universities offer online classes, so an institution that does this is not necessarily a diploma mill. If you're unsure, investigate the school. Legitimate colleges usually have extensive websites listing their curricula, faculty, and other information.
An Education Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding higher education diploma mills is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an education lawyer.