Dustin Stout, Carrie Chalker, Kayla Becker and Tara Knott contributed to this multimedia story.
If a simple little lie could get you your dream job, would you tell it?
The answer to that question has made educational fraud into a billion-dollar business. Diploma mills are everywhere, and like a game of global Whac-A-Mole, as soon as you find one, it disappears and pops up somewhere else.
What’s a diploma mill?
Steven Reed, former director of postsecondary education for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said diploma mills provide “no educational content for a credential. That’s the simplest definition.”
Clients pay these mills a fee and receive a degree in return. And the more you pay, the better your degree – many mills now offer masters’ and doctoral degrees. For an additional charge, some will even provide you with a false transcript.
But why would anybody purchase a fake degree?
Imagine this. You dropped out of high school to work at your family’s business and have been making good money, but with the economy in shambles, you have to close.
“You might have even legitimately tried to go back and get your GED and not passed. But you need to feed your kids,” Reed said. “What do you do? Spend a little money, get a diploma, get a job.”
For this reason, most customers of diploma mills don’t see themselves as victims – that is, until they get caught using a phony degree and are charged with fraud. The diploma mills generally escape all responsibility because of four little words on their website: “For entertainment purposes only.” This allows the mill to claim they were just providing the customer with a service and had no idea it would be used for illegal activities.
What is the government doing to stop diploma mills?
Diploma mills one of the hardest criminal industries to track because most people who purchase their products know what they’re getting into.
“They’re not walking in blind. They know that they’re paying a fee, and that fee means no educational content and you give me my credential,” Reed said.
But on occasion, an unknowing consumer might be browsing the web for a way to earn an online degree and stumble into the hands of a diploma mill. And when that consumer realizes they’ve been duped, Reed said, that’s when the government can hunt the mill down.
Many mills hide behind a religious disguise, so some states, including Tennessee, have laws that allow the government to get involved with a religious school because that school is providing a secular degree to its students.
Still, catching and closing a mill isn’t enough – the biggest problem is keeping it closed.
“If [diploma mills] get caught, they just simply shut down and they move somewhere else. It’s a game for them, in a way,” said Reed. “They know the laws, and they probably know them even better than some of the state administrators.”
To shut them down for good, he said, “it really takes some folks that are constantly in the game keeping up with it.”