To explain, a diploma mill is a place that takes money to give you a high school diploma. These are all online, which is the way they get around most laws. Even though there is a push to ban these companies, it's hard to ban something that is based outside of the US. What do I mean? Most of these websites that offer diplomas are actually from other countries, but pretend to be from here in the US.
So what do you look for to determine if it's real or not? There are some obvious signs.
- If you pay a fee, take an evaluation, and receive your diploma in 2 weeks, then it's not legitimate.
- Look at the accrediting agencies. Sometimes these websites list what entities accredit them, but they aren't always real entities. A good way (not always true, but most of the time) to tell if the accrediting agency is bogus is to see if the US and/or state Dept of Education recognizes the agency. Some legitimate agencies aren't recognized, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look with a critical eye.
- Look to see if they offer discounts. Schools aren't supposed to offer discounts because of the way tuition is handled. There are scholarships and grants that help pay for tuition, but since that's from an outside entity usually, it is different. Schools are the grocery store; if there are deals, you might want to think twice.
- If the site tells you what's in your graduation package before you complete, then there is a problem. One site says you will receive 1 high school diploma, 2 transcripts, 4 education verification letters, 1 certificate of membership, 1 certificate of distinction, and 1 award of excellence. See any problems there? How does anyone know you will qualify for a certificate of distinction or award of excellence before you've actually done anything?
- Look in the FAQ sections and look to see what they say in regards to a GED. Many times they will actually say that it's a good idea to get a GED in addition to their diploma. Why waste $400 on a fake diploma when a $50 GED will actually get you somewhere?
- If you get to choose the year in which you "graduated", then it is fake.
- If you are getting credit based on "life experience" and not actually taking a rigorous academic program, then it is a fake. You actually have to take tests to prove you know information and you have to actually earn credit.
- If you can't actually find a place where the school is "located" (meaning where the owner or parent company or any physical address of any kind), then it is fake. Most of these "schools" are actually run by people not in the US. One particular "school" is run from a man in Pakistan, and there are no faculty of any kind.
- A big red flag is if the school is self-accredited. It's one thing to fool students by saying you're accredited by bogus agencies, but telling them that they are accredited by nobody and being proud of it should be a major sign for you to stay away. How can they justify their curriculum if no one is checking it over?
- If the transcript has actual grades for classes and all you took was a life experience assessment, then there is something fishy.
Here are two news stories you may be interested in. These tell you what you need to know.
"Virtually Worthless" - Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
"Alleged Diploma Mill Program Traced to Pakistan" - KHOU Houston, from BBB's website