The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas

There is a major crisis in the world of higher education: the large and growing number of fake universities and fake degrees.

June 13, 2012  |


The following is an excerpt from Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas published by Prometheus Books. Click here for a copy. 

There is a major crisis in the world of higher education: the large and growing number of fake universities and fake degrees.

Many people are either unaware of the situation, don’t know what a huge problem it is, or don’t appreciate how it is affecting them, their institution or employer, and society at large.

Consider, for instance, these five things:

•  There are more than 3,300 unrecognized universities, worldwide, many of them outright fakes, selling bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, law, and medical degrees to anyone willing to pay the price. No nation is immune from the problem.

• One international diploma mill, with offices in Europe and the Middle East and mailing addresses in the United Kingdom, run by Americans, has sold more than 450,000 degrees—bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, medicine, and law—to clients worldwide, who did nothing more than write a check. Their revenues exceeded US $450,000,000.

•  The number of earned PhD degrees in the United States is 40,000 to 45,000 each year. The number of fake PhDs bought each year from diploma mills exceeds 50,000. In other words, more than half of all people claiming a new PhD have a fake degree.

•  Fake medical degrees are an urgent problem. It is easy to buy a medical degree from a fake school, or a counterfeit diploma in the name of a real school. Twenty-five years ago, a Congressional committee calculated that there were over 5,000 fake doctors in the United States, and there are many more now. People have died because of these fakes.

•  The Government Accountability Office looked for fake degrees among employees of less than 5 percent of federal agencies and found enough to suggest that more than one hundred thousand federal employees have at least one, many of them paid for by taxpayers not to mention resulting higher pay and increased retirement benefits.


It is generally advisable to define the “beast” before going out to attempt to slay it. In the case of degree mills, this turns out to be an elusive task.

Let’s begin with the most basic words: degree and diploma.

A degree is the title one earns from a legitimate school or simply buys from a fake one: Bachelor of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Business Administration, Doctor of Philosophy, Juris Doctor (law), Doctor of Medicine, and scores of other titles.

A diploma is the certificate—the piece of paper or parchment—that signifies that a degree has been awarded.

Schools award degrees. And then they present the graduate with a diploma, which is, in effect, an announcement, a proclamation of the degree that has been awarded.

Degree mills issue diplomas. Diploma mills sell degrees. We can live with either word, but we have selected “degree mill” as our term of choice since it refers to the entity awarding the degree and not just to the decorative announcement framed and hung on the wall.


Different people define these words differently, depending on their intention. There is far from unanimous agreement on just what a degree mill is.

Almost no one would deny that a “university” operating from a mailbox service that grants the PhD in three days is a degree mill. But what about an institution that operates legally in a state with minimal regulation and requires three months and a thirty-page paper in order to earn its PhD? What about one that requires six months and sixty pages? How about twelve months and one hundred twenty pages? One person’s degree mill may be another’s innovative new-style university. Clearly more definition is needed than just time and work required.

Until now, only three books have been devoted entirely or largely to degree mills. Here’s how each of them define the term.

In 1963, Robert Reid wrote that “degree mills are those institutions that call themselves colleges or universities which confer ‘quick-way,’ usually mail-order degrees on payment of a fee. These institutions turn out . . . degrees without necessarily requiring the labor, thought, and attention usually expected of those who earn such degrees.”

In 1986, David W. Stewart and Henry A. Spille wrote, “Basically a diploma mill is a person or an organization selling degrees or awarding degrees without an appropriate academic base and without requiring a sufficient degree of postsecondary-level academic achievement.”

In 1990, Steve Levicoff, realistically acknowledging that no single definition can work in every situation, offered a list of sixty-two characteristics sometimes exhibited by degree mills, and he suggested that each reader would have to decide how many of these characteristics it would require before calling a school a degree mill.

In Allen Ezell’s presentations to academic and business groups, he often uses this definition adapted from several publications of the US Office of Education: “Degree mills are organizations that award degrees without requiring [their] students to meet educational standards for such degrees. They receive fees from their so-called students on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation and/or make it possible for the recipients of its degrees to perpetrate a fraud on the public.”

It would be wonderful to have an infallible and undisputed test of what is a mill and what isn’t, but clearly there is no perfect definition that works for every person in every case. We offer in chapter 2 our list of ninety-two things that schools do to fool people. If a school has eighty or ninety of these characteristics, almost no one would deny it is a mill. But what about sixty-three? Or forty-two? Or seventeen? Some would say yes and some would say no or maybe. The important thing is to be clear about why you say something is, or is not, or probably is. In general, it seems to us, identification as a degree mill comes down to consideration of these five crucial issues:

a. degree-granting authority,

b. credit for prior learning and experience,

c. amount of new work required,

d. quality of new work required,

e. who makes the decisions.

Let’s look at each of these issues in a bit of detail.

a. Under what authority are the degrees granted? Who has given the school permission to grant degrees? How have they made that decision?

Authority to award degrees needs to come from an independent entity, almost always a government agency. Some mills claim to give themselves the authority through their corporate charter, but no legitimate school does this.

We are talking about well over three hundred government agencies, and that means more than three hundred different policies and procedures. There are the 192 members of the United Nations, a few dozen countries that haven’t joined the UN, and dozens of territories, colonies, and protectorates. There are countries where some or all of the school decisions are made one step down from the national government: the fifty US states, of course, as well as the Canadian provinces and territories, the Swiss cantons, and others.

Some government agencies have a comprehensive and responsible method for determining who can grant degrees; others are little more than rubber stamps or have a simple and trivial process. And a great many are somewhere in between, thus subject to various interpretations, depending on who is doing the interpreting and for what purpose.

b. How much credit is given for prior learning, and how is that decision made?

It is an academically valid and well-accepted practice to give credit for learning experiences that took place prior to enrollment. A typical example is skill in a second language. If an American student takes four years of French in college, she will earn about twenty-four semester units and achieve a certain level of competency in the language. But what if she reached exactly the same level of competency on her own, whether through taking a Rosetta Stone course, living in that country, or learning from her grandmother? Many schools will award credit, although not necessarily those twenty-four units, once the competency has been demonstrated on a meaningful written and/or oral examination.

Credit is responsibly given for a wide range of prior learning, ranging from an Army map-reading course, to an IBM in-house training program, to earning a multiengine pilot’s license, to extensive independent study in Buddhist philosophy, to achieving a high score on the Graduate Record Examination in math.

While each school makes its own decision on how much credit to give, many rely on recommendations made by the American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service, described at ACE evaluates thousands of learning experiences and publishes its recommendations on how much credit to give for each experience in several large volumes each year.

While there can be a considerable range in the amount of credit given for the same experience, the bad and fake schools regularly abuse this process by making outrageous credit awards. For instance, a good score on the ninety-minute College Level Evaluation Program (CLEP) test in history is worth one or two semester units at many schools and as much as five or six at a few. But degree mills have been known to give forty or fifty semester units, or even the entire bachelor’s (typically 120 units), master’s, or doctorate degree, for one CLEP test.

Again, we have a continuum, with the least-generous legitimate school at one end and the degree mills at the other. If the amount of credit awarded for a Navy music course ranges from three units at School A to one hundred twenty units at School Z, where does one draw the line between “good school” and “bad school” and perhaps another line between “bad school” and “degree mill”? And, most significantly, who draws that line?

c. How much new work is required to earn the degree?

While there are three regionally accredited US schools that will consider awarding their bachelor’s degree totally based on prior learning (if there is a great deal of it), the vast majority of schools require at least one year of new work, no matter what the student has done before.12

At the master’s and doctoral level, giving credit for prior learning is minimal and rare. We know of no school with recognized accreditation that will award its master’s degree for anything less than one academic year (eight or nine months) of new work. The doctorate typically requires at least two years of new work, but usually three to five.

It is a common approach for degree mills to look at an applicant’s CV or resume and say, “Ah, yes, you’ve been selling life insurance for three years. That is the equivalent of an MBA,” or “We have determined that your five years of teaching Sunday school can earn you a Doctor of Divinity degree.”

Once again we have a continuum. At one end are the schools that require a great deal of new work after enrollment, and at the other end are the degree mills that offer any degree, including the master’s or doctorate, entirely or almost entirely based on the resume.

Is a three-page paper and one short open-book quiz sufficient for a master’s degree? A thirty-page paper and a one-hour unproctored exam? Ten thirty-page papers and five two-hour proctored exams? Where does one draw the line, and, again significantly, who draws it?

d. How does one judge the quality of the work done?

Even more complicated than evaluating the quantity of work done to earn any given degree is the quality of that work. A brilliant thirty-page thesis might be considered more worthy of a master’s degree than an ordinary hundred-page one or a poorly done three-hundred-page one.

Once again we have a continuum from A to F (or 4.0 to 0.0) grades, and we have the complicated issue of who makes those grading decisions and on what basis.

The quality of work done has been used in courtroom trials and other public situations to help prove that a given school is a degree mill. A high school teacher with a dubious PhD sued his school district, which had refused to pay him at the doctoral scale as the union contract required. The district had acquired a copy of this man’s seventeen-page doctoral “dissertation” directly from his alma mater, an unaccredited California university. The arbitration committee was clearly not impressed with this work, which the committee said was nothing more than a book report, and denied the claim.

That situation turned out well. But what if the three arbitrators had “voted” two to one? What if the lawyer for the defendant had found three professors who said that the work was adequate? What if the degree holder had hired an academic writing service (and there are plenty of them) to write a good dissertation for him, after his degree was challenged?

e. Who makes these decisions? How do they do so?

Gatekeepers and decision makers must decide where to draw all these crucial lines: how much credit for life experience, how much work to earn a degree, and what quality of work. Whenever possible, they will make use of external examiners: scholars from other schools and agencies, who will review the processes and determine that they are valid and equivalent to what their own institutions do.

All of this means that there is no short, simple, universally accepted definition of a degree mill. The complexity of the current educational situation precludes that.


Allen Ezell is the founder and former head of the FBI’s DipScam diploma-mill task force, and author of “Counterfeit Diplomas and Transcripts” and “Accreditation Mills.” John Bear, PhD. is the former head of new business development for Pearson’s educational division and is the author of the bestselling Bears’ Guide series of educational books, plus numerous books on consumerism, computers, and other topics. Ezell and Bear are co-authors of “Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas” (Prometheus Books, 2012).