By Dr. Sherrie Lewis, assistant professor of management

Are you considering an online degree program to finish your associates or bachelor's degree, or perhaps, to start graduate studies? Have you ever searched the Internet to look for programs that suit your interests, budget or lifestyle?

As a potential student, it is important that you know and understand the characteristics of programs that make your degree valued by potential employers – and those that don't.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, a diploma mill is "a company that offers 'degrees' for a flat fee in a short amount of time and requires little to no course work."1

The problem lies in the fact that many of these companies, or diploma mills, have names resembling well-known schools.

Begin your search to find a legitimate online program by identifying a few fundamental traits about the school.

  • Carefully examine the name.
  • Does the university have a website?
  • Where is it located?
  • Avoid universities that use P.O. boxes or apartment numbers.
  • Legitimate schools should list phone numbers, campus directories, and .edu website extensions.

One of the easiest ways to evaluate the legitimacy of a school is to examine its accreditation.

Legitimate universities, such as Saint Leo University,2 list accreditations on the school website.

Look for regional accreditation or recognition from the United States Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Association (CHEA). Verify the information by visiting agency websites. CHEA, USDE, regional and professional accrediting organizations provide lists of accredited schools by state.

Beware: some accrediting organizations list member institutions, as well.

These universities may be applicants for accreditation or may have an interest in becoming accredited. However, they are not currently accredited.

Don't forget: membership isn't the same as accreditation.

Examine the degree requirements.

Accredited online degree programs require coursework and fees are charged by the class or credit hour.

  • Diploma mills offer degrees for cash. Tuition prices may be quoted by the cost of the degree.
  • Diploma mills may not require course work, residencies or a certain number of course participation activities (discussions, interaction with other students and professors). Some award credit just for life experience.

Beware of any school promising degrees in short periods of time.

If you are a transfer student, diploma mills may even offer to transfer a larger number of your credits than other schools. You may receive sales calls with promises of faster program completion times.

Protect your hard earned cash and professional reputation by doing some homework before enrolling in any program.

Employees have used diploma mills to obtain jobs as counselors, educators, government officials, athletic coaches, engineers and medical doctors. If you use a diploma mill degree to get a job or promotion, you could be prosecuted, fired or forced to repay money awarded as part of the promotion.

In some states, you must notify a potential employer that you've received a degree from an unaccredited school as part of the application process. As a result, the employer may choose not to interview or hire you.

Now that you know the facts, use the tools to do your homework before selecting a program. Contact accrediting bodies, the Better Business Bureau, potential employers, your local university and/or your state attorney general's office with any unresolved questions about a school's, programs or transfer credits.

If you take a few steps now, you can avoid costly mistakes that may prevent you from achieving your educational and professional goals.


"An education is one of the biggest investments you can make in your future," says Sherrie Lewis, assistant professor of management. As an educator, public speaker and career coach, Sherrie advises students and job-seekers on career selection and transition. She teaches classes both online and at Saint Leo University's Education Center in Fort Eustis, Va. She can be reached at

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Choosing Regionally Accredited Online Degree Programs Matters

Online Degree Programs: What Students Look For

Online Degree Programs | Find The Right Fit For You

Image Credit: Korephotoson Flickr/Creative Commons


2 Saint Leo University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate, baccalaureate, masters, specialist, and doctoral degrees. Degree-granting institutions also may offer credentials such as certificates and diplomas at approved degree levels. Questions about the accreditation of Saint Leo University may be directed in writing to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033-4097, by calling (404) 679-4500, or by using information available on SACSCOC’s website (