Are Online Degrees Really Valid and Legal?

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Whenever jobs become scarce, one of the first industries to see a boost is higher education. In order to compete, many job seekers return to college (or go for the first time) to get a degree in a particular career field in order to better be able to compete for jobs. Unfortunately, there are a few unscrupulous institutions that take advantage of those in this position, selling replica degrees from actual universities or offering degree programs despite lacking any accreditation.

The result is that one may, either knowingly or not, list on their resume a degree that is either completely fraudulent or not generally recognized as valid by organizations that maintain minimum educational standards for institutions of higher learning. This can be an initial boost to one's resume and might even help the candidate land a job, but maintaining the position may be another matter. When it becomes apparent that the individual lacks the expected knowledge and abilities of one who holds such a degree, it could lead to loss of work, civil liability for fraud or misrepresentation, or even criminal charges.

The individual may be just as much a victim. Some of the companies issuing such degrees actually appear to be legitimate institutions. Some have required study programs to perpetuate the appearance of being a legitimate college, though these programs are often abbreviated. Some even claim accreditation, though the accrediting organization may be phony, as well. Often these schools appear to be located in the United States, but upon further investigation turn out to be from overseas, making taking any form of legal action against them difficult at best.

So, how can one tell a legitimate school from a fake and avoid being scammed? Once it was possible to tell simply if the school was completely online, but a number of legitimate institutions have grown up around this model as the Internet has developed, so this is no longer a clue. Instead, you will have to dig a little deeper:


Legitimate school are likely to have a lot of information on their websites about their programs and curricula, faculty, alumni activities, etc. If the school you are considering lacks any of this information it may be bogus and you might need to look elsewhere for your educational needs.


Every legitimate institution is accredited. Which organizations are responsible for providing that accreditation will vary by jurisdiction and by field (for example, the American Bar Association accredits law schools, but the state in which a school is located may have its own accreditation process for those same law schools to be considered legitimate). The accreditation process is designed to ensure that a college or university meets certain minimum standards with its education and professionalism. This is also how employers and other schools will know that if you hold a degree from an accredited college or university, you have met certain minimum educational requirements and should have certain core competencies.

Fees and Time

Many accreditation organizations have standards for the number of hours a student must devote to the study of a particular subject in order for that school to legitimately issue a degree in that subject. While some legitimate schools offer “accelerated” programs, they usually achieve their accelerated status by allowing students to take more classes at one time, allowing them to complete the requisite number of hours of study in fewer months. However, illegitimate institutions often offer “accelerated” programs as part of their allure, as well, but usually without any corresponding longer programs and without requiring one to dedicate greater amounts of time to their studies. These schools will often charge much lower tuition than other, legitimate schools. While the allure is obvious (degrees issued in less time and for less money), as is so often the case, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

What Can You Do?

If you have questions about whether a program you are considering is legitimate or not, you can contract your state's accrediting organization(s) or seek advice from an attorney experienced in education law. A short consultation with your lawyer could keep you from spending thousands on a useless degree that could actually get you into other legal trouble when you try to use it on your resume! If you have already been defrauded by one of these sham schools, you should also consult with an attorney to see if you have a viable cause of action against the phony institution.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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