A diploma mill is a company which essentially sells academic degrees to its customers. “Graduates” of the institution complete little or no coursework for their degrees, and typically they never visit a physical site in the course of their relationship with the organization, because the diploma mill lacks a campus. Diploma mills are viewed as problematic for many reasons, not least of which is that people use diploma mill degrees on resumes to suggest that they have college educations and experience, when this is not, in fact, the case.
Several characteristics distinguish a diploma mill from a legitimate college or university. The first is location. Diploma mills offer online and mail order degrees exclusively, without any opportunity to visit a campus or meet faculty. Many diploma mills are literally run out of a post office box, with no physical facility at all. Typically these companies also push speed when it comes to degree granting, encouraging people to sign up quickly and pushing students through their coursework fast, if they offer coursework at all.
Diploma mills are also not accredited by official accreditation agencies, and some take advantage of “accreditation mills,” agencies which look legitimate, adding a veneer of respectability to a diploma mill. Many diploma mills have names similar to that of real academic institutions, especially prestigious ones, and they have little to no academic standards. Some advertise the inclusion of life experience in college credit, and push the idea that getting a degree is fast, easy, and inexpensive.
Students may get a degree from a diploma mill because they genuinely do not realize that the school is a fake. This is especially common in disadvantaged communities, where students may see the minimal requirements and low expense as a potential for opportunity, signing up for diploma mill programs in an attempt to get ahead. Other people buy degrees from diploma mills with the deliberate intent of fraud. In both cases, people should be aware that misrepresenting qualifications and college education can have serious consequences.
Some perfectly legitimate colleges offer online or distance coursework, and many diploma mills take advantage of this to sell their programs. When researching any college, it is a very good idea to check on the college's accreditation. Search for “college accreditation” and your country in your favorite search engine, and you should come up with the government agencies which oversee college accreditation. Use these agencies to get lists of legitimate accredited colleges.