Attorney General files suit to shutdown ‘sham’ diploma mill Ellenwood Academy

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The lawsuit alleges that Ellenwood overstates the value of its diplomas and deceives customers.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office is suing a Brandon-based online diploma mill. A lawsuit filed in the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County against Ellenwood Academy seeks to shut down operations and force the “school” to stop issuing what it describes as “sham” high school diplomas.

Ellenwood Academy is an online-only private company that sells diplomas to students over the age of 18 for $195 after successfully completing an online exam. Students can take the test as many times as necessary to receive a passing grade of 70 percent or above.

Ellenwood is accredited through the Accrediting Commission International group, which is known for providing accreditation to diploma mills.

The lawsuit alleges that Ellenwood overstates the value of its diplomas and deceives customers by hiding disclosures on its website that would inform potential customers that its diplomas are virtually useless.

“Yes, Ellenwood Academy is registered with the Florida Dept. of Education and our school code is 6930. We are accredited by the Accrediting Commission International, one of the largest and highly respected accrediting bodies in the country,” the website explains.

However, as the lawsuit points out, “private schools in Florida are not licensed, approved, accredited, or regulated by the Florida Department of Education (DOE) and Ellenwood specifically is not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the Florida DOE.”

“Defendants’ registration in Florida’s School Choice program is merely a ministerial act, based solely on their own self-reported answers to the Florida DOE’s annual private school survey,” the lawsuit reads.

The Florida DOE does not recognize Accrediting Commission International as a legitimate accreditation entity.

The Ellenwood website tells customers that its diplomas can “open doors to a better future” and that its degrees are valid for employment in “most” jobs in all 50 states. However, the lawsuit alleges former customers have reported being unable to obtain jobs requiring a high school diploma and that none of Florida’s public universities accept diplomas from Ellenwood for enrollment.

An Attorney General investigation into the school dating back to at least 2016 found that the school does not have any instructional staff, teachers or course work available through its degree programs.

When customers select the “enroll now” function on the company’s website, they are not given access to any course information and instead are offered an opportunity to take a practice test. Upon completion, the website states that students will receive a diploma package including a diploma, wallet-sized diploma, transcript and verification service.

Ellenwood does disclose its stats as a “correspondence school” and does not offer traditional diplomas. It also discloses that it is a private school and its not affiliated with any state or government accreditation, which means state or military schools might not accept its degrees for enrollment.

However, those disclosures are “hidden” on the company’s website under a tab about high school diplomas in small print at the very bottom of the page through a link that says “read our terms and conditions.”

Customers are not required to acknowledge they have read the terms and conditions before purchasing the company’s service.

The Attorney General lawsuit alleges that constitutes unfair business practices under Florida law. Moody’s office is asking a judge for civil penalties up to $10,000 per violation and restitution for those affected.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


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