How Online Degrees Work

The Employer's View

The big question in everyone's mind is, "Is an online degree from an accredited college or university seen by potential employers as a lesser degree?" The jury still seems to be out on this. On the plus side, the IT fields appear to place more value on online degrees because of the nature of the work itself. As would be expected, human resources (HR) professionals tend to place more value on degrees from established universities rather than virtual universities they've never heard of., a career network Web site, did a survey of 239 HR professionals and found just that. According to the results, which were released in February 2001, 77 percent of respondents believe that an online degree earned at an accredited institution like Duke or Stanford is more credible than one earned at an Internet-only institution.

Here are some other findings from Vault's study:

  • Twenty-six percent believed that online bachelor's degrees were as credible as traditionally earned bachelor's degrees, while 37 percent believed that online graduate degrees were as credible as traditionally earned graduate degrees. This perhaps follows the idea that people seeking graduate degrees are doing it online because it's their only or best option due to current job demands. These people may be seen as more driven and self-motivated.
  • The most commonly cited drawbacks of online education were the lack of social interaction with peers (61 percent), lack of data about the effectiveness or quality of the education -- it's too new to gauge (53 percent), and loss of real-time teacher/student exchange (39 percent).
  • The three industries most likely to embrace online degrees were Internet/New Media (70 percent), Technology (46 percent), and High Tech (44 percent). Media and Marketing (29 percent), Telecommunications (29 percent), and Consulting (22 percent) followed.
  • The three industries least likely to embrace online degrees were Medicine (68 percent), Law (56 percent), and Health Care/Bio Tech (52 percent). Academia (44 percent), Government (22 percent) and Finance (18 percent) followed.

Some of the comments and recommendations the respondents made might help online degree holders land a job even if the interviewer is hesitant about the value of the degree. Some of the those recommendations included:

  • Tell employers and potential employers that your degree was earned online. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said this should be a requirement.
  • Bring along transcripts and course study examples, as well as letters of recommendation or authenticity about the program and its accreditation.
  • Have industry experience to back the degree.
  • Traditional courses like public speaking, debate, public forum and group dynamics might be helpful to show that you have people skills. (This is probably more helpful if you don't have a long work history behind you.)

Other sources, such as Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University, did studies that revealed that there is little if any difference in the quality of education received through online distance learning versus traditional classrooms. John Losak at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale found similar results in his own study. He analyzed graduation rates, time to graduation, and knowledge, as well as other elements. He found the students performed as well or better in online courses.

Still an uphill battle

But how do you make employers aware of these studies and the quality of online education? How do you convince someone evaluating your credentials that your master's degree, earned late nights in front of your computer or sitting in airports, was as rigorous and thorough as one earned the old-fashioned way?

As more and more people get online degrees and use them in the workforce, HR managers and hiring managers will begin to feel more secure about the quality of education these people have. If the studies that were done by Thomas L. Russell and John Losak -- showing the quality of online education to be as good as or better than that of traditional education -- hold up on a larger scale, then the future of getting jobs and advancements based on online degrees will be bright.

Until then, choose schools carefully, and check for accreditation and strong programs. When you've completed the degree, go to job interviews armed with information to counter any questions about the quality or validity of your degree. Make sure the interviewer knows how you achieved the degree, how you worked it into a busy schedule, how you overcame any obstacles. It will show a self-motivation and discipline that may be just the qualities the company is looking for.