Is a Fake College Degree Worth Anything?

Earlier this month I asked Is a College Degree Worth Anything? It is a theme I’ve touched on a few times over the past year. (See other posts in the Grads Chris Moncus category "College" at right.) In my view college is financially a great deal for some people, and a good deal on average, but at the marginal extreme probably not worth it.

Two recent posts on WalletPop (here and here) raised an interesting follow-up question. Is a fake college degree worth anything?

I am talking about degrees from what are called diploma or degree mills. Deliciously, WalletPop makes a distinction between the terms based on how blatant the fraud is. Diploma mills sell official looking papers for a modest fee. Degree mills make a show of reviewing your "life experience" before selling you official looking papers for a slightly less modest fee, running from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Who would buy such a thing? Based on news articles cited by WalletPop (e.g. this one) the primary domestic market appears to be government workers. That makes sense. A private employer might not be impressed by a degree from an unknown university. But in the public sector, where hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions are governed by ossified civil service rules, a generic and/or fake degree can mean real money.

Fake degrees are also, it turns out, another great American export industry. In 2008 a big diploma mill in Spokane was busted by the Feds. When their customer list was leaked it was found that about half were from overseas, many from Saudi Arabia. This inspired some trumped-up anxiety about terrorism. Obviously, any Arab with a fake PhD in Computer Science is a suicide bomber in the making.

More likely, Saudis buy bogus degrees for the same reasons Americans do, to dupe employers, particularly the government. Given the distance and language barrier involved it probably works better over there than here, and in that part of the world a government job is a much bigger deal.

All this makes sense to me, more or less. I can see why, for some people in some situations, a fake degree from a fake school on the resume is a smart move. But what I just don’t get is why anybody would pay money for one.

These degrees are a fragile house of cards. Even the slightest breeze of investigation will cause them to collapse. In a matter of seconds Google will expose Rochville University as a scam. So why pay them money before you claim your Masters in Nuclear Engineering? If the HR guy at the nuclear plant decides to look into it, you’re screwed even if you have an engraved certificate with an embossed gold seal.

And wouldn’t it make more sense to claim a degree from a real school? I know from personal experience that employers almost never verify these things. My resume says that I got a certificate in finance as part of my MBA. Turns out, if you call the university involved they will deny such a thing exists, as it was really just something a few renegade professors cooked up. In the 15+ years this has been on my resume its dubious status has been discovered exactly once, during the due diligence for a corporate takeover.

Come to think of it, perhaps my current extended unemployment could be explained by the fact that my resume inexplicably omits my PhD in Aeronautical Nanotechnology from Cal Tech.

Better yet, perhaps the degree mill business could use a new entrant. Sure, the couple who ran the one in Spokane are in prison now, but they were also selling counterfeit diplomas from real schools. (I can understand why that is illegal, although I can make a reasonable first amendment argument that it shouldn’t be.) In any case, I will merely invent my own school and award unaccredited degrees based on my own extremely lax criteria. Diplomas will be clearly marked "For novelty purposes only" in 4 point type. Some customers may use the degrees in fraudulent ways, but that’s their business.

Of key importance will be my university’s name. I’ve narrowed it down to a few possibilities: Colombia, Cornel, Dartmuth, Princetown, or maybe the University of Pennsylvainia. I was thinking of going west coast with Stamford University, but that’s taken. As is Samford University. (Both 100% real colleges, BTW.) Thankfully, my favored name for an engineering school, MIT (the Malden Institute of Tupperware) is still available.

[Photo: Chris Moncus]


  • By Dave_W, February 22, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    I always thought the best idea in this area would be to establish a college in Oxbridge – the village in Dorset. Then sell people an “Oxbridge degree” (trading on the term’s use as a portmanteau for Oxford and Cambridge universities).

    I’m pretty convinced there’s mileage in that one.

  • By Chuck, February 22, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    Dave. You had me fooled with Oxbridge. I think you have a winner.

  • By Neil, February 22, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    I could be wrong, but I think a completely fake name would be less detectable than a near-famous college name. I mean, if someone sent me a resume claiming a (completely legitimate) Stamford degree, I would check into it. If someone claimed a fake degree from “Dougall College,” or something like that, I wouldn’t think twice about it.

  • By Greg, February 22, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    I ordained my Dad and bestowed upon him an advanced degree in Divinity (based on the fact that my check to the Universal Life Church did not bounce).

    Is a diploma mill degree worth it? Probably gets you past the same HR types that miss the fake information on a resume.

    I mean really, if you do not verify that I was senior advisor to Alan Greenspan, are you going to catch my Harverd degree?

  • By jim, February 22, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    Degree mills are illegal in my state but apparently it depends on the state laws. A few states have lax or no standards. Mississippi apparently has no standards for colleges so leaves the door pretty open for diploma mills.

    The full list of people who bought degrees from the Spokane diploma mill is online. You can search it here:
    So you can check if any of your friends and coworkers are on there. :)
    Seems that there were a lot of military members who bought such degrees.

  • By Rick Francis, February 22, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Why should a FAKE or even a REAL diploma be so expensive when there is so much education available for free via the internet? I would love to hear your thoughts on this educational mystery:

    -Rick Francis

  • By Craig, February 22, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Get someone to translate “for novelty purposes only” into Latin. You’ll be set for life.

  • By jim, February 22, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Craig, how about Italian: “per novità purposes soltanto” via babelfish. Its a fake degree so why not use fake Latin? If they’re going to translate the Latin on the degree then they’ll probably verify if its a valid degree.

  • By Janet, February 22, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    I’m always surprised how people find it hard to spell Berkeley. I think Berkley or Berkely could be great candidates for your university name. (Not to be confused with the actual Berklee music school either).

  • By Dangerman, February 22, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    “…counterfeit diplomas from real schools. (I can understand why that is illegal, although I can make a reasonable first amendment argument that it shouldn’t be.”

    The first amendment doesn’t trump trademark law. If you use Harvard(TM) for commercial purposes, the 1st amendment isn’t going to save you.

  • By CalLadyQED, February 23, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    Frank, I’ll sell you the school name I came up with for a share in the profits: Harvard Mudd.

  • By getagrip, February 24, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I had a friend who interviewed for a job which required a four year degree. So he said he had one from a local college, talked his way through the interview and got the job. Long story short, a year later he’s their top sales guy, but at his performance review they tell him they found no evidence he’d ever attended the college, let alone had a degree. Given he was blowing the socks off the degreed candidates, they had to fire him or look idiotic for requiring a degree for a job that obviously didn’t need it.

    The sad part is that a lot of positions just list a degree, any degree half the time, in order to justify the position and salary, rather than worry about the quality of work that’s actually performed. If it wasn’t for that fact, degree mills would have a lesser presence.

  • By donald, January 12, 2011 @ 3:53 am

    corruption and fraud is everywhere, and the greatest fraud i have heard is these what they called fake schools. it’s like killing once dreams.

  • By Professor Lembach, March 11, 2011 @ 2:00 am

    “I have a degree from the university of life, a diploma from the school of hard knocks, and three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me” – Edmund Blackadder

    Now, how do I shoehorn that into a resume?

  • By carbon unit, April 25, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    I wonder,”it is legal to produce counterfit currency”and a serous federal offence to try to use it as
    Authentic currency. My questions are:
    Is an authentic looking college degree a capitlol or federal offence to create or purchase?
    What about special instructions on how to use them such as transcripts to go with them and lists of teachers/professors names during the time frame one may wish to claim to have been on campus. And
    Other important things to know such as campus layout, dorm names, a few class-mates you hung out
    With or that wife/girl friend you met there and most importantly,some kick-ass recomended reading to be able to apply the degree to real life situations.
    Who knows, maybe you can keep that job if your willing to submit to favors you want to do anyway.

  • By Cheryl, July 30, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    After reading through a few sites with opinions on fake degrees (most of which are against the idea), I find it mind boggling how many of the opinions are by people who have a degree, but certainly not in the English language. Wow. So many grammar and spelling mistakes. It really makes the “college educated” posters look hypocritical.

  • By Dave, December 17, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    As a veteran (a real one), it chafes my arse a bit to know that military servicemembers and other government workers constitute such a large percentage of the market for Harbard and Darkmouth degrees. It makes me really ponder how these people ever obtain security clearances (a common requirement for such positions). They contacted my third grade teacher to verify that I actually attended that school for third grade. They also contacted neighbors in every residence I claimed throughout my life. You would think the alarm bells would start ringing at some point… namely that you conspicuously never lived anywhere near your purported alma mater.

  • By Wandy Wheeler, July 15, 2013 @ 2:20 am

    “college is financially a great deal” true!! especially now since the government has risen the rates for student loans college education is no more within the range of many…in such scenario online degrees are a big sigh of relief…and services like are doing a great job..

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