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Confirming Accreditation: A Commonly Missed Step in Education Verification

Stephanie Cook | Industry Expertise

Have you heard the story about the cat who received a PhD from Trinity Southern University? What about Molly, the Bassett Hound, with an official high school diploma from Lincoln Academy? While both have been unsuccessful at finding full time employment, the stories of their educational background made the news in 2004 and 2012, respectively.

For those working in personnel to recruit employees of the human kind, you have probably heard about diploma mills, and you may have even come across one or two in your search for the perfect job candidate. You may have had some suspicions because the school didn’t sound familiar, or maybe the seal on the degree copy you obtained had one too many typos. But with well over 100, 000 public and private schools in the United States, it may not be an easy task to determine the legitimacy of the institution that your job candidate attended. And if you don’t understand the accreditation process, and the role it plays in the United States’ education system, you may be even less likely to catch an illegitimate degree.

So, what is a diploma mill, and why are they so problematic? The Federal Student Aid Office, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Education, provides a definition that a diploma mill is “An unaccredited school (or business claiming to be a school) that awards a degree or other credential for a fee while requiring little or no classwork meeting college-level standards.” To understand this further, we need to know what accreditation means regarding the education system in the United States. Accreditation is defined under the same glossary as a voluntary act that “Confirms that the college or career school meets certain minimum academic standards, as defined by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Schools must be accredited to be eligible to participate in federal student aid programs.” While accreditation is often discussed at the post-secondary level, it is just as important to know the accreditation for a high school, as many diploma mills operate as both a secondary and post-secondary institution.

The United Stated Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions, but instead, provides review of federally regulated accrediting agencies. These accreditation agencies were designed to provide non-governmental assessment of secondary and post-secondary institutions by creating a unified standard for educational criteria and comprehensively evaluating the academic quality of the institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the accreditation agencies that are “nationally recognized” include non-governmental entities as well as federal and state agencies that accredit most public secondary institutions.

While a school does not have to be accredited to operate in the United States, many organizations and companies have deemed accreditation necessary when looking at the educational background of their job candidates. To work a federal position requiring a specific level of education, the person must have attended an institution accredited by a recognized agency. Given the nature of what accreditation agencies offer to these schools, this is a sound approach in ensuring that your job candidate has put in the educational work for their credentials. Diploma Mills often scam students by appearing legitimate or even using names that are very similar to genuine colleges and universities with accreditation, making them much more difficult to spot when glancing at a resume.

An accreditor can be considered nationally recognized under either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). These agencies must go through multiple steps to receive recognition by the Secretary of Education. However, just as an institution or college does not have to be accredited to operate in the United States, an accrediting agency does not have to be nationally recognized to provide accreditation services, but, any university or college that wishes to provide federal aid to its students must be accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. This makes them the “gold standard”, especially when it comes to post-secondary institutions, since many diploma mills will often try to claim accreditation by an unrecognized agency. Most government agencies will also not hire individuals who receive credentials from an unaccredited institution or an institution with unrecognized accreditation.

 

How We Can Help

At PSI, we ensure the legitimacy of education credentials through an education verification directly with the institution or the third-party agency deemed to hold their records, such as the National Student Clearinghouse. In addition to this, we research and catalogue the accrediting agency for each institution that we seek a verification with. This information is listed within the report. We also make note if the institution is unaccredited or has accreditation that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).