7 Tips for Spotting Fake College Degrees and Unaccredited Colleges

Kim-Ling Sun
Updated November 20, 2023
Edited by
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Verifying a college or program’s accreditation status is a key part of the school research process. Why? Accreditation ensures that the school meets certain standards of academic quality. It’s also important should you transfer to another college or apply for a graduate program.

Whereas institutional accreditation ensures an entire school has met a particular standard of quality, programmatic accreditation ensures a specific program has met that standard.

Why Should You Avoid Unaccredited Colleges?

There are several reasons you should avoid attending unaccredited colleges, often dubbed “diploma mills.” Attending a school that lacks accreditation comes with a lot of negative ramifications:

  • You’ll be ineligible to receive federal financial aid. You must attend an accredited institution to qualify for financial aid. In other words, you won’t be eligible for federal grants, work-study, or low-interest federal loans.
  • Colleges and universities equate a lack of accreditation with poor educational quality. Transferring institutions and graduate programs may not recognize your coursework or degree if you attended an unaccredited college.
  • You may not qualify for professional licensure. Some jobs, like nursing, require you to get a license upon completing an accredited program. Without licensure, you’ll be unable to legally work in your field of study.
  • Employers may not want to hire you. A “fake” college degree earned from an unaccredited school may cause potential employers to doubt your ability to perform at the level your job requires.

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How to Spot Unaccredited Colleges: 7 Essential Tips

There are several ways you can determine whether a school is unaccredited. Here are a few quick tips to help you spot a college scam.


Does the School’s Website Look Professional?

A legitimate college or university website will look professional. Consider any of the following a red flag:

  • ban The school’s website URL doesn’t end in .edu. (Note that ending in .edu doesn’t always guarantee legitimacy, though.)
  • ban The website contains obvious typos and grammatical errors.
  • ban There is limited contact information, including no physical address for the school.
  • ban There are no faculty members with credentials from known accredited institutions.

Does the School Claim to Be Accredited?

Legitimate colleges include their accreditation information on their website. Usually, you can find this information by using the site’s search feature or by visiting the school’s “About Us” page.

The University of Texas at Austin and New York University are great examples of what to look for on an accreditation page. Each page includes the name of the accrediting agency and its physical address, contact phone number, and email.


Is the Accrediting Agency Legitimate?

Once you’ve located the name of a college’s accreditor, the next step is to verify that the agency is legitimate.

All legitimate accrediting agencies will be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and/or the U.S. Department of Education.

The following are some bogus accreditation agencies:

  • Accreditation Council for Distance Learning (ACDL)
  • Accreditation Council for Online Academia (ACOHE)
  • Accreditation Panel for Online Colleges and Universities (APTEC)
  • Accrediting Commission International (ACI)
  • American Accrediting Association of Theological Institutions (AAATI)
  • American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE)
  • American Association of Drugless Practitioners (AADP)
  • American Council of Private Colleges and Universities (ACPCU)
  • Association for Online Academic Accreditation
  • Association for Online Academic Excellence (AOAEX)
  • Association for Online Excellence
  • Association of Accredited Bible Schools
  • Association of Distance Learning Programs (ADLP)
  • Association of Private Colleges and Universities
  • Board of Online Universities Accreditation (BOUA)
  • Central American Council of Accreditation (CACA)
  • Central States Consortium of Colleges and Schools (CSCCS)
  • Council for Distance Education Accreditation
  • Council of Online Higher Education
  • Distance and Online Universities Accreditation Council (DOUAC)
  • Distance Learning International Accreditation Association
  • Distance Learning Quality Assurance Agency (DLQAA)
  • European Accreditation Board of Higher Education (EABHE)
  • Global Accreditation Bureau (GAB)
  • Global Accreditation Commission for Distance Education (GACDE)
  • Global Accreditation Council for Business Education (GACBE)
  • Global Accreditation Council for Online Academia
  • Global Accredited Council for Business Association (GACBA)
  • International Accreditation Agency for Online Universities (IAAOU)
  • International Accreditation Association for Online Education (IAAFOE)
  • International Accreditation Commission (IAC)
  • International Accreditation Commission for Online Educational Institutions (IACOEI)
  • International Accreditation Commission for Online Universities (IACOU)
  • International Accreditation Organization (IAO)
  • International Association Council of Engineering Professionals (IACEP)
  • International Commission for Higher Education
  • International Council on Education (ICE)
  • International Education Ministry Accreditation Association
  • International Higher Learning Commission
  • International Online Education Accrediting Board (IOEAB)
  • National Academy of Higher Education
  • National Accreditation and Certification Board (NACB)
  • National Board of Education (NBOE)
  • National College Accreditation Council (NCAC)
  • National Commission of Accredited Schools (NCAS)
  • National Distance Learning Accreditation Council (NDLAC)
  • New Millennium Accrediting Partnership for Educators Worldwide
  • North American Distance Learning Association (NADLA)
  • Organization for Online Learning Accreditation
  • Transworld Accrediting Commission (TAC)
  • United Christian College Accreditation Association (UCCAA)
  • United Nations Council
  • United States Distance Education and Training Council of Nevada
  • Universal Accreditation Council (UAC)
  • Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation (UCOEA)
  • World Association of Universities and Colleges (WAUC)
  • World Online Education Accrediting Commission (WOEAC)
  • Worldwide Accreditation Commission of Christian Educational Institutions (WWAC)
  • Worldwide Higher Education Accreditation Society (WHEAS)

Does the Accreditor Sound Too Much Like a Legitimate Agency?

Some degree mills attempt to convince you of their accreditation by listing a bogus accreditor whose name is very similar to that of a legitimate accrediting agency.

For example, a school may list the International Higher Learning Commission, a fake accreditor, in the hopes that you’ll confuse it with the legitimate (and similar-sounding) agency, Higher Learning Commission.


Is the School Still Actively Accredited?

Schools must maintain their accreditation. If a school receives a rejection from an accrediting body, it means they haven’t upheld the required standards. This is significant because a lack of accreditation translates to a school’s inability to offer students federal financial aid.

To check whether a school is still accredited, go to the accrediting agency’s official website and look for a list or directory of member schools — your college should be on it.


Is the Program Still Actively Accredited?

Like entire schools, individual programs can lose accreditation, which can impact your ability to apply for licensure and get a job.

Earning a degree from a program that’s been denied accreditation recertification can also negatively affect your ability to attend graduate school. For example, to get an MBA at a reputable graduate school, you must have earned your bachelor’s from an accredited institution.

Not all programs will have programmatic accreditation, but if yours claims to, you must confirm that the accreditation is legitimate and active.

You can check program accreditation the same way you would institutional accreditation: Go to the accrediting agency’s site and look for a list of accredited programs to see whether your program is on it.


Is the School Overly Promoting Fast-Track Degrees?

Degrees earned in a very limited amount of time can be a red flag to valid accreditation. Bachelor’s degrees typically take 3-4 years, while master’s degrees take 1-2 years, depending on the program.

Make sure the school isn’t making unbelievable promises, like earning a bachelor’s in six months or getting a doctorate in two years.

Accreditation agencies ensure that the degree you earn has value in the marketplace. Walking away with a degree from one of these fast-track schools might mean you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a worthless piece of paper — don’t let that be you!

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