Fraud in Accreditation and Higher Education

April 9, 2006

Introduction, History and Reasons for Prosperity

Welcome to the American Academy of Continuing Medical Education (AACME) in USA, an institution where anyone can purchase virtually any accreditation or degree for a fraction of what they would pay at other colleges and accredited agencies – literally pennies on the dollar! How do AACME and similar institutions and universities offer such competitive prices? Simple – the institutions are accreditation and diploma mills.

The accreditation and diploma mill, in its simplicity, are unaccredited and fraudulent institutions of continuing education. The degrees and accreditations they offer are worthless because accreditations’ work and the operators’ handling of the mills are fall well below standard educational benchmarks. Accreditation and Diploma mills are unscrupulous routes to achieving a higher status in work and family settings.

Accreditation and Diploma mills, also referred to as “mills”, have probably existed since the American Civil War era, and documentation of their existence dates back 130 years. In 1876, John Eaton, a U. S. Commissioner of Education, called diploma mills a “disgrace to American education”. The practice of selling accreditation and degrees was ridiculed in a popular German play during the 1880’s. The American public began complaining about the mills around 1911 in a series of letters written to the federal government.

Despite a lack of public knowledge regarding the situation of the industry, the United States government has had some involvement in shutting down some accreditation and diploma mills. In 1979, DipScam, an FBI entity, began closing down the mills. Scores were closed down and their owners prosecuted. With the retirement of the top FBI accreditation and diploma mill expert, Allen Ezell, the program began its downward spiral and eventually ceased in 1992. Since then, accreditation and degree mills have made a fierce comeback and are now more prolific than ever. Hundreds of agencies and schools exist in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The United States still prosecutes operators occasionally, however the laws they are convicted under are not specifically related to accreditation and diploma mills. U. S. Code, Title 18, Sections 1341-1343 (mail and wire fraud) are the most common felonies sought after in cases against operators. Even then, rarely are the users of the fake degrees prosecuted.

Accreditation and Degree mills thrive primarily for eight reasons:

  1. The prestige of American accreditation and degrees are bait for foreigners. (They usually aren’t familiar with our system of accreditation and the problems with phony degrees, however.)
  2. Word spreads quickly because of the cheap prices of accreditations and diplomas.
  3. Laws are too lax in some states.
  4. If legal pressure is applied, accreditation and degree mill operators move to other states with less strict laws.
  5. The dishonest continue to purchase these accreditations and degrees for the purpose of deceiving others.
  6. Mills are ignored by responsible accreditation agencies, government, and reputable institutions of higher education.
  7. Media and law enforcement are disinterested in mills because there is no legislation specifically pertaining to mill operations.
  8. Holders of the fraudulent accreditations and diplomas are ashamed of their mistake and don’t complain or are scared of being exposed.

Accreditation and Diploma mills have become more prosperous because modern technology is becoming increasingly available to the general public, home copiers and printers can produce professional-looking accreditations and degrees, operators vigorously advertise their programs, and the Internet has made it easy to recruit “institutions and students”. The accreditation and diploma mill industry has been able to generate hundreds of millions of dollars. It has been dubbed by John Bear, an ex-FBI consultant, as a “huge crime wave…and almost no one has noticed”.


Accreditation is an important factor in the public perception and actual legitimacy of a higher education institution. This process, quite simply, is a validation that a school’s faculty, curriculum, and supporting facilities are worthy of awarding diplomas in certain areas of study. Accreditation in the United States is rather peculiar – the government has no direct involvement in the process whereas in other countries, the central government is usually the agency that recognizes a facility as being legitimate. In the United States, the job of accrediting institutions and schools lies completely in accreditation agencies, a private industry. The Department of Education recognizes legitimate accreditation agencies, but that doesn’t stop less-than-honest agencies from cropping up and accrediting less-than-wonderful institutions.

Although accreditation is undeniably important to both schools and institutions, this importance is undermined and confused by these three factors:

  1. There are no significant standards for accreditation between states.
  2. Some legitimate schools and institutions are not accredited because it is costly to go through the accreditation process, or because they are too new.
  3. Many substandard schools and mills claim to be accredited.

In the latter of the three factors, diploma mills will often refuse to mention the accreditation agency (and some flamboyant operators will create their own fraudulent agencies). Many new agencies have opened, and it is becoming more and more difficult to track them all – whether these agencies are legitimate or otherwise. It is also becoming tougher to find out exactly what institutions have been accredited. Anyone can start a degree mill, open an accrediting agency next door, give his institution or school its blessing, and begin advertising “fully accredited degrees”. This happens repeatedly, and it remains a big problem.

Characteristics of Operators and Accreditation or Degree Holders

There are general characteristics of both those who sell these dreadful accreditations or degrees and those who utilize them. Research and psychological analysis on these types of people has been conducted. This portion of the essay will attempt to summarize the results of this research.

Most individual mill operators gross well over $20,000,000 per year (and this figure rises each year as more and more uninformed people have access to modern technology such as the Internet – the prime location for purchasing the accreditations and diplomas). They usually receive their degrees from other mills or are lifelong scam artists. Most operators are talented at finding loopholes in existing laws and are persuasive and able to tempt buyers to purchase their accreditations and degrees.

Buyers who utilize these accreditations and degrees fall into two categories: Uninformed people who think the accreditations and degrees came from legitimate sources, or people who knowingly and explicitly purchase fraudulent accreditations and degrees. They may do so for more recognition or fame, pay increases, job promotions, and personal gain. Those who are uninformed and later discover the accreditations or degrees are fraudulent are usually too embarrassed at their mistake to go public. Often, those who buy fraudulent accreditations and degrees read about them in newspapers or magazines, or search for them on the Internet.

Characteristics of Accreditation and Diploma Mills

Accreditation and Degree mills come from different places and have different operators, but many contain similar characteristics. Most mills claim to have libraries, classrooms and other “essential” educational tools and facilities, but most mills are operating at a corner desk with an Internet-connected computer.

The mills use photographs of other buildings in advertisements. Most have P.O. Boxes or “Suite” mailing addresses. They advertise low fees, large accreditations and degrees, little effort, complete facilities, qualified faculty, and the authority to grant accreditations and degrees. Tuition is almost nonexistent except for the “all-in-one” fee for the accreditation or diploma. Certainly, you could even become an accredited with a golden seal or “Accreditation with Commendation” for 6 years by the above-mentioned American Academy of Continuing Medical Education (AACME) ONLY if you pay in advance.

“Flexibility” is the term to use when talking about the management of accreditation and diploma mills. When legal pressure is applied, the operators of these “institutions/schools” simply pack their bags and move where laws are more lenient. This is a very important reason as to why no individual state can get rid of the bothersome industry. With the help of the Internet and VOIP phones, some fraudulent institutions would leave U.S. territories to resume their operations from other countries, but would keep their American addresses.