From pamphlets to phone calls, incoming — and returning — college students are bombarded with information from schools eager for their attendance. But how can you ensure your tuition is buying you a quality education?

As of 2022, the U.S. houses roughly 4,600 degree-granting U.S. colleges and universities. Unfortunately, not all colleges are legitimate. To avoid losing out on thousands of dollars, be on the lookout for these three signs of a fraudulent university or degree program scam:

  1. The accreditation isn’t with a recognized agency.
  2. You’ve received high-pressure or urgent enrollment demands.
  3. You’re offered a fast-tracked degree that requires little to no work.

3 signs that your college may be scamming you

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, if you recognize any of these traits within your degree program, take a closer look. If you believe the school is defrauding you, unenroll and report it to the Federal Trade Commission and your state attorney general.

1. It isn’t accredited with a recognized agency

Accreditation ensures academic integrity and quality. It is awarded to U.S. universities that meet agency-set educational standards by a group of professionals who conduct in-depth reviews. Private, public and vocational schools all need institutional accreditation. Additionally, individual programs in specific fields of study may need programmatic accreditation.

Accreditation by an official agency ensures that the school isn’t engaging in fraudulent behavior. Along with the initial stamp of approval, schools also undergo regular reviews to ensure they’re keeping up with agency standards. However, the federal government doesn’t set higher education standards.

This broad oversight can — and has — left room for smaller universities to slip through the cracks and engage in dishonest practices or deliver a low-quality education. For example, in June 2022, the Education Department used the borrower defense program to discharge $5.8 billion in federal student debt for former Corinthian College Students because of alleged fraudulent behavior.

Students who have attended schools like Corinthian are often left with substandard education, a degree employers won’t respect and thousands of dollars in high-interest debt.

Some colleges may falsely claim accreditation by a recognized agency. Schools can also receive accreditation through a non-recognized agency or fake agency.

To confirm your school is properly accredited, use the Education Department’s College Navigator tool and check the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s database of institutional and programmatic accreditors.

2. You’ve received high-pressure or urgent enrollment demands

Schools or programs that frequently reach out with persistent, high-pressure enrollment demands or urgent requests should raise questions for you.

This isn’t to say that every advertisement or recruitment email you get from a school is predatory. In fact, most schools you express interest in or live near will likely send you information.

But if the contact becomes urgent, persistent or aggressive, you may want to check the school’s accreditation status and reputation. That goes double if recruiters avoid questions you ask about programs and costs or pressure you to take out loans.

As a general rule of thumb, steer clear of any school requesting a steep sum to secure enrollment or placement in a program. Most reputable colleges charge per class, credit or semester.

At a reputable college, if you owe money or fall short on tuition payments, the financial aid office will notify you. It’s also likely that you won’t be able to register or enroll in classes. Exactly how much you owe will be explicitly stated, and making the payment should be fairly straightforward.

3. You’re offered a fast-tracked degree that requires little to no work

While there are certifications, training and programs that don’t require a full four years of in-person instruction, be wary of any degree programs that promise a “fast-tracked” associate, bachelor or master’s degree.

Most schools allow their students to finish their degrees early, but only if they take significantly more courses a semester than the general student population. If the program you’re interested in promises a degree with a fast and easy completion timeline, look into the school and program’s accreditation and compare it to similar programs at other schools.

What to do if you think your school scammed you

Students can report fraudulent university or college activity to the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General. The form is confidential and completed completely online. You can also call the hotline.

If you’re certain you’ve been scammed, report the school or degree program and apply for borrower defense to repayment. Borrower defense is a federal student debt relief program that forgives the federal student debt of students defrauded by their school.

However, just because you apply doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get your loans forgiven — your claim needs to be approved first. Don’t stop making monthly student loan payments, or you could default on your loans.

Bottom line

With average college costs topping $10,000 per year for in-state students, it’s worth making sure you aren’t getting scammed by your school. A good way to ensure that your school is legitimate is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is how students apply for specific colleges and federal financial aid; if a school is listed on the FAFSA, it’s a legitimate institution. As an added layer of assurance, make sure to always check the accreditation status and graduation rates prior to applying to avoid a potential — and costly — scam.