Accreditation and Diploma Mills

Written by

George D. Baker


August 14, 2014


Using a phony degree is dangerous. Unfortunately, because of the way state laws typically work, you are far more likely to be punished than those who actually granted you the phony degree. To help you make the right decision, we offer you a crash course on accreditation.

The U.S. Accreditation System is Complicated!

The U.S. system of accreditation is unique in that it is far more complicated than accreditation in other countries. In the United States, we do not have a ministry of education that accredits educational programs. Instead, the United States government, through the Department of Education (USDE), recognizes private accrediting agencies that have appropriately high standards when awarding their own accreditation, i.e. degrees. This does not mean, however, that all accrediting agencies recognized by the USDE are identical. In fact, they are far from it. The USDE allows considerable latitude when it comes to meeting recognition requirements, with the specific details regarding accreditation varying significantly from one accrediting agency to another. The USDE only wants to make sure that the end product, the degree, is reasonably equivalent and of high quality.

Along with the USDE, the U.S. government also recognizes the authority of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private voluntary association of educational institutions, to recognize accrediting associations in competition with the USDE. Thus, in the United States, some accrediting agencies are recognized by USDE, some are recognized by CHEA, and some by both.

In the United States, degree programs are accredited by a regional accrediting agency, the national level Distance Education and Training Council, or a profession-sponsored accrediting agency. Sometimes a degree may be issued under several accreditations. For example, a psychology degree might be issued by a program accredited by the American Psychological Association, and the program may be offered by a school accredited by its regional accrediting agency.

While there are merits to the accreditation system in the United States, our complex system also opens the door to fraud. With so many agencies, there is naturally going to be some confusion amongst consumers of education.

Phony Accrediting Agencies

A disreputable person can take advantage of our system’s ocmplexity by setting up an official sounding accrediting agency, then using it to accredit their own phony degree programs. By doing so, they can then deceptively publicize themselves, claiming, “Our programs are fully accredited. While it does appear to the unsuspecting student that this school boasts accreditation, it is in fact accredited only by an unrecognized accrediting agency with no real review process, making their “accreditation” effectively worthless. In fact, a degree issued from an institution of this type is actually worse than worthless. A fraudulently accredited degree has negative value, and can actually get you in trouble with the law.

To further complicate matters, not every unrecognized accrediting agency is in fact fraudulent. Some are actually sincere efforts to create a viable alternative to traditionalist regional accrediting agencies for accrediting distance-only colleges. These accrediting agencies are operating with the straightforward intention of gaining recognition from the USDE or CHEA. Unfortunately, these are few and far between. Most unrecognized agencies are created in an attempt to deceive the public, deserving to be viewed with a skeptical eye.

To find out once and for all if the accreditation claimed by a school has any real merit, you must browse the list of agencies recognized by the USDE and/or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

If the accrediting agency is recognized by either USDE or CHEA, the accreditation is valid. Otherwise, it is worthless.

College Mouse Client Research Policy

When College Mouse conducts research on distance degree programs, we report on only schools accredited by an agency recognized by USDE or CHEA. We report on unaccredited but seemingly honest schools only on request, and only after we have had an opportunity to actively discourage it.

If you are in the market for a degree requiring only the submission of a resume or a check, may not be the academic resource for you. Unfortunately, some people actually prefer a phony degree, thinking that they are going to pull a fast one on a potential employer or a licensing agency. They are not aware, however, that every licensing agency and every human resources department of any size has one or more reference books that list the status of every registered institution of higher learning in the country. Some offer subscriptions to keep updated by email or Internet .

Applying for a job with a phony degree is punishable almost everywhere as fraud. In the state of Oregon, it is even considered fraud to use any unaccredited degree– legitimate or not–in any public way, punishable by fine and imprisonment! Essentially, this means you can display your diploma in a bathroom used only by family members.

Which accreditation is best?

Finding out what accreditation is best is where it really gets complicated. A school of business may be accredited by one or many recognized accrediting agencies. Theoretically, this degree should be accepted by other accredited colleges. Sometimes, though, students unfairly experience difficulties in getting their degrees accepted by regionally accredited graduate schools that hold the outdated belief that regional accreditation is somehow superior to specialized accreditation.

 While accreditation granted by the DETC should be viewed as equal to accreditation granted by any other nationally recognized agency, the practical reality is often different. Readers should be warned that regionally-accredited schools often view DETC accreditation as second-rate.

To further complicate matters, the exact opposite situation can exist in regards to professional versus regional accreditation. In some business and credentialing situations, professional accreditation granted by a nationally recognized agency sponsored by a profession or business community may in fact carry more weight than accreditation by either DETC or one of the regional accreditors. Accreditation by the American Psychological Association is far more important to a professional level psychologist than regional accreditation. The same goes for National League of Nursing accreditation for nurses.

Some good schools do opt out of accreditation

Some very respectable schools are not members of professional accrediting agencies, being satisfied to stick with regional accreditation only. Some decline membership by choice because they want to offer courses differing in content and or methodology from those prescribed by accrediting agencies. Others decline because the exorbitant cost of the accreditation process are better spent on school funding and academic priorities.

At the end of the day, you must be careful, as almost all diploma mills say the same thing when asked to explain why they are not accredited! The bottom line is, most schools are not accredited simply because they could not qualify academically, or because they do not meet the standards for financial stability.


As we’ve discussed, the process of approvals and accreditations is not simple here in the United States.

In most situations, choosing a school with accreditation granted by some accrediting agency recognized by the USDE or CHEA is most important. In fact, selecting the school is actually a less important choice, unless you intend to apply to very competitive positions right after receiving your degree. Otherwise, once you have adequate professional experience, your work performance will be of just as much worth (or more) as your degree.

Now that you understand the basics of accreditation, it is your choice to decide how much risk you are willing to take in this regard.

If you choose to use a fake degree with a phony accreditation, you could lose your job, be blackballed by your profession, or even go to prison for fraud. It simply is not worth it. There are plenty of accredited distance degrees available.

 Now what? The next step is easy!

Take the first step today towards advancing your education by browsing our large database of free information about the best accredited online colleges, or simply look below to find something else that interests you!


Written by:  George D. Baker

George D. Baker is a long-time contributor to College Mouse. Now retired, Mr. Baker volunteers at adult education programs in his local community.

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