Get our weekly advice

Keep up-to-date with the latest advice from Finish College.

How to Tell Whether an Online Degree Completion Program Is Legitimate

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Find the College Right for You! »

The advent of technology in higher education has made it more equitable, accessible, and flexible. As wonderful as this innovation is, it has also been a breeding ground for predatory Diploma Mills. What is a Diploma Mill? Simply put, it’s a scam. Diploma Mills are companies masquerading as institutions of higher education. You’ve likely seen glossy TV ads for schools promising a quick and affordable degree. As wonderful as these opportunities may seem, they can actually put you further in debt without the job prospects associated with an accredited degree. As you search for the right school for you, beware of these fraudulent institutions whose only goal is to take your money. Consider the following factors to determine whether a degree program is legitimate: 


Accreditation status is arguably the most important factor when it comes to discerning whether a degree program is legitimate or not. What is accreditation? Accreditation is the process of determining the quality of education, services, and operations of a higher education institution by an external organization. This process ensures that the degree you’re working toward is from a high-quality institution. Many graduate programs and employers will stipulate that candidates must have a degree from an accredited institution. There are different accrediting bodies throughout the nation depending on the region and, sometimes, even the subject matter. 

For example, most institutions will have general accreditation by the U.S Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education, but will also have further accreditation for specific fields of study.  If you are looking to get an MBA, you’ll want to make sure your desired program is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB) and/or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) These accrediting bodies are committed to making sure programs adhere to high-quality teaching standards and are continually evolving to meet the changing needs of the business world. 

Accreditation status is easy to find. If you’re struggling to find out whether this institution is accredited, chances are they probably aren’t. The best way to determine an institution’s accreditation status is to visit the website of the national or regional accrediting organization. Most organizations keep current lists of institutions granted accreditation by their agency. 


Higher education is expensive. Lower costs or unique payment structures might be an attractive temptation, but they are usually indicative of fraudulent degrees. If an institution is offering a ridiculously low price for a degree or they want all the money up front, dig deeper. It could be a sign that they’ll take your money and run. High-quality institutions will likely charge per credit hour in the range of $200-$600. Some programs also charge per semester, just like traditional undergraduate programs. 


It’s easy… A little too easy. Just because it is online, that doesn’t mean it will be an easy ride. Institutions that make this promise will likely be offering a subpar education, which is why graduate programs and companies don’t accept such degrees. If the rigor of the programs doesn’t seem appropriate, it most likely won’t be. Most high quality institutions will require the satisfactory completion of a certain number of credits, not just a résumé review. Credit for life experience is another tactic that diploma mills employ to seem more attractive. If you’re a working professional, you will have a few years of applicable experience—that should be rewarded, right? Yes, of course, but it’s not that simple. It takes more than just a résumé to prove that you deserve credit. Most high-quality institutions will happily award credit if you go through the proper process, which is usually a credit-granting exam like the CLEP exams from College Board. 


Just because you’re completing a degree online, that doesn’t mean it’s you and your laptop against the world. A high-quality institution will provide online students several (if not all) of the resources available to traditional students. You should have access to a number of virtual resources, such as counseling, the library, a writing center, career services, and more. If your institution doesn’t provide these services, this may be a sign they are not legitimate. 

As a non-traditional student, you will likely have work and life obligations that make a traditional degree path difficult. The beauty of online degrees is you can still earn your degree on your own time. But make sure it’s an investment that will actually pay off. Take the time to make sure your hard-earned money and valuable time are not wasted on a fraudulent degree!

Get our weekly advice

Keep up-to-date with the latest advice from Finish College.