Diploma Mills Redefined: There are Far More of Them Than You Might Think

What is a diploma mill? Scan the web and you will find a range of answers. Some limit their idea of a diploma mill to illegitimate schools. They are scams that claim to be legitimate organizations, but only to take your money, sending you a diplomas for little to no work. Others think of diploma mills as actual colleges or universities that offer degrees, but these schools might not be accredited, and/or they offer degrees with a watered down academic experience. Still others use the phrase “diploma mill” to describe a college or university that is more interested in getting a student’s money than in the quality of the education. They are essentially selling diplomas. All of these represent working definitions for a diploma mill today, but I’d like to offer an expanded definition.

A diploma mill is any college, university, or organization that has the earning and issuing of diplomas as its core value and/or function as described by employees at the organization and/or the students.

Notice that many definitions of a diploma mill speak to the idea of organizations that issue diplomas for a price, but without the academic rigor or the evidence of actual student learning. That is indeed a diploma mill, but I’d like to suggest that this is only one type. There are also diploma mills that make things quite hard for students. They add lots of rules and academic hoops. They might have challenging tests. They require papers and projects. They might even offer good and valuable learning experiences. Yet, in the end, they or the students that they serve see them as mainly just steps toward getting that piece of paper at the end. That is a diploma mill. A mill is a place where machines grind out grain into flour. A diploma mill is a school that grinds out people into graduates with pieces of paper. The focus is upon how many pieces of paper they issue. The process is not as important as the end goal of getting the piece of paper.

You know that you are in a diploma mill if you were to get half way through a degree program, leave, and believe that it was therefore a complete waste of your time and money. The focus was on getting a diploma, and you didn’t get it, so you basically look at it like going to the store, paying for a product, but leaving the store without the product.

For non- diploma mills, the product, if we want to stay with that metaphor, is not the diploma. It is the mentoring, the learning, and the journey of personal transformation. Do you consider that idealistic? If so, then I’d like to suggest that such a reaction is further evidence about how rampant diploma mills are in higher education today.

Scan online advertisements and you will read grand promises of earning your diploma in increasingly shorter periods of time. There is a drive to condense and crunch things into smaller chunks of time, removing time for reflection and deeper learning. There are ads that place a prominent image of a student crossing the stage with the diploma in hand, since that is the goal in a diploma mill.

The paper is not without value. Companies value it when posting jobs. Certain pieces of paper from colleges are required to even apply to some jobs. The paper adds some level of prestige. It serves as a signal of achievement and progress in a person’s life. Family members and recipients often beam with pride.

None of this is inherently bad, but I’d like to suggest that it is separate from real, deep, important, substantive learning and education. If you go back far enough in the history of Harvard, you will find a time when students who graduated didn’t even get diplomas. If they wanted one, they had to hire someone to create it and they go the President’s office, paying the president to sign it. That was in addition to and/or separate from the real focus of Harvard, which was to provide a rich and valuable education.

In the flurry of higher education innovation today, and the praise of massive enrollments, we are wise to not lose sight of the dangers associated with becoming a diploma mill. They risk devaluing the essence of great higher education. In addition to that, the more that colleges see themselves as mainly selling verification and diplomas, the more that they set themselves up for a future and impending disruption. Things might go well for them, even exceptionally well, in the short to mid-term, but that will eventually change. The learning communities that truly contribute to something important in life and the world are the ones that likely issue diplomas at the end, but that is not the main thing for them. They are true communities of learning, inquiry, and transformation.