Are Online Degrees Respected by Employers?

Employer Perceptions of Online Degree Programs

Online degree programs are viewed with varying levels of legitimacy in different quarters. Some individuals look at them with skepticism, concerned that too much responsibility falls on students for covering material independently, that syllabi cover too much material in insufficient depth, and that the methods of distance learning are poorly suited to collaboration, research, and developing novel ideas. However, much of this resistance against online programs is likely due to the fact that online degree programs are a relatively new entity.

Increasing Acceptance By Academic Leaders

As online programs continue to evolve and grow, increasing numbers of people in academia are beginning to see them as a valuable and cost-effective way to reach a broader, non-traditional audience of students who, for a variety of reasons, including geography and socioeconomic factors, would be otherwise unable to pursue higher education  In 2013, the Sloan Consortium, a non-profit organization that collects information on online education and promotes effective teaching practices, reported that 74% of academic leaders rate online outcomes as equal or superior to traditional instruction, marking a 17% growth since 2003. While this is an important step forward in determining the quality of online education, the question remains for many potential online students – Are online degrees accepted by employers?

Opinions in the Workplace Cut Different Ways

Some Employers are Naysayers

In 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 55% of employers still prefer traditional degrees, although 41% of respondents claim they would give “equal consideration” to online degree holders. A 2012 study conducted by The Chronicle in conjunction with American Public Media’s Marketplace further supports that employers have “negative associations with online colleges.” Online college scored a 2.82 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 3 was deemed neutral, rating online colleges as “undesirable.” However, though the study highlighted online colleges, it did not mention online degrees offered by for-profit, private not-for-profit or public universities.

Some Employers Believe that Even Though Online Education Has Value, Students Do Not Learn As Much

Despite the larger percentage of employers leaning towards traditional degrees, online degree programs do seem to be gaining increased reception. Although a 2013 survey from Public Agenda reports that only 53% of employers believe that online students learn more or about the same compared to traditional programs, 73% say online learning requires the same discipline as traditional classroom instructions. Furthermore, 80% believe that online education can be a valuable way for older students to obtain a college degree.

Some Employers are “Waiting to See What Happens”

The Chronicle went on to interview the director of research at Public Agenda, and she summarizes employers’ opinions by stating that “the hesitation over online degrees represents more of a technological generation gap… Many employers have never taken an online course and can’t necessarily relate to applicants who have….Employers said they didn’t dismiss the idea of online education completely but were ‘waiting to see what will happen.’”

Some Employers Deem Online Education Favorable

A 2010 survey conducted by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) of online graduates and their employers reported that, as a whole, the workers’ supervisors deemed online education favorable:

  • 93% of the supervisors believe that their employees who have earned online degrees have “equivalent, knowledge, skills and attitude” to those who have earned a resident degree.
  • 73% rated the value of their employees’ degrees to be as equal or greater value to resident school degrees in the same field.
  • 85% of the supervisors believe that the online students perform better on the job because of the degree they earned.
  • 92% of the supervisors are favorable to hiring those with online degrees.
  • 94% would encourage others to enroll in online learning programs.

Making Your Online Degree Program Work for You

What does all of this mean practically? First, it means that you need to do your best in your online degree program to learn the material expected not only by the program, but also in your professional environment. Perhaps, an MBA from a little-known online university may not hold as much weight to some employers as one from an Ivy League college, but that does not meant that online degrees do not carry real value in the workplace.

However, it is possible that you will be challenged by your potential employer. Be prepared to defend your degree in person by impressing them with your acquired skill-set and knowledge in interviews. You also need to be realistic about what your degree can do for you. The institution you choose matters, and you need to pick one that matches your ambitions. You may also want to consider hybrid programs that combine both classroom and online learning. The Public Agenda study discussed above notes that 82% of the employers they surveyed prefer hybrid programs to those conducted purely online.

Time Will Tell

The fact remains that traditional institutions still have a distinct advantage in terms of alumni networks, physical and financial resources, and name recognition, especially at the graduate level. However, the growth and augmenting respect for online degree programs in academia holds out great promise for their viability in the professional environment.

This growth is due, in no small measure, to the success that online alumni have achieved in the job market after graduation. Online colleges reward students who are self-motivated and independent, and employers tend to place a high value on those attributes. Ultimately, what matters most is not where you received your degree, but what you do with the skills and knowledge you have developed through the educational process.