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If you want to improve your chances of being hired or promoted, earning a college degree might help. But not all degree programs are real. Though many online schools and distance learning programs are legitimate, there are organizations that sell fake degrees. Those can cost you more than just money when it turns out the degree is fake.

Signs of a College Degree Scam

Here are some signs you’ve come across a scam:

  • Scam programs don’t require studying, exams, or interaction with professors. If you think you’re getting a degree without doing any work, chances are you’re dealing with a college degree scam — also known as a diploma mill. Legitimate colleges or universities — including online schools — require that you do substantial course work and interact with instructors or professors.
  • Scammers say you can get a degree with “experience”. Companies offering fake degrees might say your work or life experience alone can get you a degree. Real, accredited colleges may give some credits for some of your experience that’s directly relevant to a degree program. But nobody legit will give you an entire degree based on your experience.
  • Scam programs offer fast degrees. Some schools offer accelerated degrees, both in-person and online. But earning a degree still takes some time. If a school promises that you can earn a degree in a few days, weeks, or even months, it’s probably a scam.
  • Scammers use pushy advertising tactics. Companies offering fake degrees often use spam, pop-up ads, and high-pressure calls to advertise their school. Legitimate institutions and distance learning programs are less likely to do that.

How To Know a Degree Program is Real

It may be hard to tell the difference between a legitimate school and a scam. Many fake degree programs have well-designed websites and familiar sounding names that make them seem real. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. So, before you pay money to anyone promising a degree for a fee, find out:

Is this school accredited?

Accreditation status is important because it’s hard to transfer credits from a school that’s not accredited. That means the money you spent on those credits could be wasted.

Accreditation is a process where a recognized group (called accreditors) looks at a school’s education program and decides whether it meets an acceptable standard of quality. If it does, the school is accredited. Colleges and universities must have their programs regularly reviewed by these independent accreditation organizations. Find out if a school or certificate program is accredited on College Navigator.

Know that not all accreditation means the same thing or is real. Some accreditors don’t do thorough reviews of a school’s education programs, which means their accreditation isn’t recognized by other schools. And sometimes fake degree programs simply make up an accreditor — or lie about being accredited by a real organization. If any of these things happen, you might find yourself with trouble transferring credits or getting anyone to recognize a license you got through that not-really-accredited school. So a little bit of self-help is the best way to go:

  • Use College Navigator to find out if a school or program is accredited.
  • Check out the accreditor at the Department of Education’s site. Is the accreditor listed?
  • Then contact potential employers and even schools you might ever transfer to. Make sure they’d recognize a license or take transfer credits from that school or program.
  • Call the registrar of a local community college or state university. Ask if their school would accept transfer credits from the school you’re thinking about.
  • Contact the state attorney general's office in the state where the school is located. Ask if the school is operating legally.

Whether it’s accredited or not, check out the program, search online for the program’s name plus the words “review,” “scam,” or complaint.”

Is this school a sound-alike, or the real thing?

Some diploma mills use names that are very close to well-known colleges or universities. Some of them use believable-sounding foreign names. A web address that ends in “.edu” doesn’t mean a school is real or trustworthy. It can be challenging, but it’s worth taking the time to research the school you’re considering.

Fake Degrees Can Have Consequences

Most employers and educational institutions consider it lying if you claim academic credentials that you didn't earn through actual course work. If you use a fake degree to apply for a job or promotion, you risk not getting hired, getting fired later on, and possible prosecution.

Paying for your education can be a large financial investment. You want to be sure you’re getting value for your hard-earned money. So, before you start investing in your future, check out the College Navigator to see which accredited degree or certificate program might be right for you.

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