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Online Degrees: The Employer’s Perspective


By Melissa Venable

Online degree options are growing in numbers, both through online institutions and initiatives by traditional schools to offer online versions of their existing degree programs. The Sloan Consortium report, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, provides evidence that "online enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population." This increase in online education enrollment will likely result in more graduates with online degrees in the job market. Does having an online degree impact a graduate's ability to find a job?

Employer assumptions about the quality of online programs have included a lack of academic rigor, low levels of interpersonal interaction, as well as questions about student commitment to the pursuit of education. These concerns are documented in a 2006 article published by The New York Times. The impressions of the employers cited are often drawn solely on the method of delivery – face-to-face vs. online. More recent studies indicate that employer perceptions may be changing as the workforce and trends in higher education change.

Employer Feedback 

Several organizations have studied employer perceptions in recent years. Colleges and universities are surveying the employers that have hired their graduates, professional associations are tracking hiring trends, and consulting firms are teaming with schools and education organizations to conduct employment research projects.

  • Western Governor's University (WGU), a non-profit online university, published a report in 2008 that highlights issues related to an employer's consideration of an applicant's educational background. Employers are aware that they are starting to hear from more applicants with online degrees. There is also an understanding that the delivery method of a degree program is just one part of the program to consider when judging its value. Accreditation is also important. Prior experience with a university's graduates may play a part in employer perception. In a 2009 survey, WGU found that 95% of its graduates' employers were satisfied with their performance and 91% would consider hiring additional WGU graduates.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) published a report in 2010 that showed 79% of organizations had hired someone with an online degree in the previous year. More than half (55%) of the employers surveyed indicated that the delivery method of applicants' degrees (online or traditional) would not make a difference if work-related experiences were equivalent.
  • Excelsior College and Zogby International surveyed business owners and executives in 2008. Their report found that only "5% of those surveyed cited as a consideration whether or not the college or university was fully online or was part of a traditional campus-based program." The majority of employers in this study said that work experience is equally as important or more important than education when assessing a candidate's application.

Media coverage of employer acceptance of online degrees presents additional information from interviews and polls. Does it matter if your degree is from an online college? It depends – on the field of work you plan to enter, on the employer you are interested in working for, and on the online school you attended. Online colleges are certainly newer than their traditional counterparts, but are gaining reputations quickly. Just as traditional schools are judged on reputation, online schools are experiencing this, too. The name of the school, the accreditation status, and quality of alumni all play a part in how an employer views the value of a degree.

Trends to Watch

There are other indications that employers are becoming more accepting of online education options. These indicators go beyond employment statistics and employer polls.

  • PartnershipsSome employers now contract with online schools for their employees to pursue education goals, sometimes at a discount for the employee or partially funded by the employer. Last year American Public University (APU) and Wal-Mart announced a partnership to provide company employees with online education opportunities through APU's online programs.
  • Tuition Reimbursement – The concept of employer funded higher education and training has been around for a while, but more of these tuition reimbursement programs are allowing employees to use the funding for online programs.
  • Managers with Online Degrees – As more human resource and hiring managers have online degrees themselves, the perception and acceptance of online degrees on incoming applications may change.
  • Online Learning at Work – As employers see the benefits of online training for employees in the workplace, they may be more open to the value of online programs for academic degrees. E-learning is becoming more popular with organizations that appreciate the flexibility and convenience that online modules offer their current employees. 

What can you do?

As a student, you should prepare yourself to be competitive in the job-market whether your degree is from a traditional or online institution. Be ready to discuss with a potential employer why you chose your program and how it has prepared you for the world of work.

Market yourself –The SHRM study asked employers about their perceptions of online students as compared with traditional students. The majority debunked the myths that online students are less skilled at time management and not as self-disciplined. Others believe that the digital literacy and collaboration competencies you develop as an online learner contribute to making you a successful employee. How can you demonstrate your strengths in these areas as you communicate with potential employers? Consider specific examples from your courses that could be described in your resume or interview and presented in a portfolio.

Gain experience – Having relevant work experience is also important to employers. They want to know that you have the practical skills to perform the tasks you will be assigned on-the-job. You may already be working in your field or have past experience that serves a foundation for your career. If you have not worked in your field of study, take advantage of internships and find opportunities to gain practical experience in a workplace setting.

Ask questions – Reach out to professionals in your network, admissions representatives, education and career advisors, and potential employers with questions about your degree program and future employment.

  • What kind of academic accreditation is important for your career field? Find out what employers are expecting and what your program offers.
  • What is the program's pass rate? How many students successfully achieved the credentials? If there is an exam related to working in your field (e.g. NCLEX for nurses, CPA for accountants, PRAXIS for teachers) find out more about how graduates have performed on the exam.
  • Where and how are graduates from your program finding work? Connect with your academic and career advisors to find out more about alumni.
  • What is your school's reputation in the industry? Research this question through the media and trade publications and by asking professionals already working in your field.

While not all employers are accepting of online degrees, there are many companies that are involved in distance education and interested in hiring individuals from reputable, accredited degree programs. Overall, employers want to hire skilled and knowledgeable applicants. Stay up-to-date on the changing perspectives and prepare yourself to meet the challenges and expectations of future employment opportunities.

June 6th, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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