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What Do Employers Think of Online Degrees?

The value of a college degree is highly debated these days, with online programs receiving additional scrutiny related to return on investment (ROI) and quality of student learning. But when your completed degree appears on your resume or job application, it can all come down to the reader’s perception – what will they think?

A new report from researchers Jeffrey S. Bailey and Larry V. Flegle titled, “Hiring Managers’ Perceptions of the Value of an Online MBA,” was published in the current issue of The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Through a series of interviews, 20 “hiring managers from a cross-sectional sample of business sectors” were asked to discuss their thoughts about the value of these degrees, online and on-campus delivery, and for-profit/not-for-profit status of degree granting institutions.

It’s important to note that the researchers are affiliated with institutions that have significant stakes in the success of online learning – Walden University and the American Public University System. They also interviewed a small group of hiring managers, all located in Wisconsin, so the results may reflect only regional perceptions.

The scope of this particular study is somewhat limited, however, the results are a good place to start and add to the larger conversations about online learning, career preparation, and employer expectations.

Are Views Changing?

Of those managers participating in the study, half indicated that online and traditional programs have “equal value” when they are considering applicants’ educational backgrounds. And “all 20 of the participants indicated it would not make any difference to them whether the school was for-profit or not for-profit.”

These hiring managers cited accreditation as a way to evaluate and assure a certain level of academic program quality of online and traditional degree programs. Bailey and Flegle found that school recognition and the specific area of and applicant’s study also influenced managers’ thoughts about online degrees.

Several managers admitted to being unfamiliar with distance education, which may affect their expectations of the experience. As more managers engage in online learning opportunities, and employees with online degrees advance to hiring positions, the perceptions may change even more, with acceptance and expectations based on their own personal experiences with learning in online environments.

Looking for Relevant Experience and Skills

According to the study, the granting institution – it’s name and reputation – do have an impact on hiring managers’ impression of an earned degree. But there are also other factors taken into consideration.

Work Experience

The hiring managers are looking not only at applicants’ educational achievements, but also at their work histories. It’s important for job seekers to understand that providing evidence of previous experience and relevant skills is a critical part of the package they are presenting to potential employers. Participants in the study said they look for work experience between undergraduate and graduate level studies.

When preparing resumes and applications it’s a good idea to include specific examples of accomplishments and achievements (not just responsibilities), and concrete numbers when possible (e.g., increased productivity by 50%, reduced costs by $20,000). Career portfolios (and ePortfolios) are another effective way to communicate this information and present work samples. Relevant practical experience gained through course work and internships can also be showcased.

Classroom Interaction

Whether the classroom is a virtual or physical one, the study participants expressed an expectation that MBA programs include “interaction between students and the ability to have discussions with other students.” The courses should also include consideration of diverse perspectives, integration of real-word examples, and opportunities for group work.

Graduates often find themselves working in teams to solve problems and complete projects at their new companies. The skills required to contribute successfully involve a wide range of communication and collaboration techniques. There may be assumptions that online courses are self-paced or otherwise lack interaction with others, when in reality, they involve a great deal of work with other online students in discussion forums and group assignments – all conducted at a distance via technology. Students should be able to describe these interactions and provide examples to potential employers.

Take-aways for Students and Job Seekers

There’s more to the decision to hire, and an employer’s initial review of a resume, than whether or not a degree was earned online or on campus. If you are considering enrolling in a distance program or are currently on the job market with an online degree, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Choose your program wisely. Research course and program structure to find out more about how students interact with each other and work in groups. Check out faculty bios and course syllabi online for details about levels of expertise and real-world experience incorporated in course content.
  • Pursue opportunities, in and out of class, to gain practical experience in your field. Take advantage of internships and class projects that connect you with the workplace and working professionals.
  • Document your achievements. How can you demonstrate to a potential employer that you can do the job? In addition to transcripts, be ready to produce work samples and provide other evidence that highlights your previous experience and the skills you will bring to the company.
  • Build your network. As an online student you are part of a growing contingent of online alumni. Join your school’s association and connect with graduates who are working in your field for employers you are targeting. Their successful careers will pave the way.

College degrees are still a basic expectation of employers in many career fields. As one participant in a recent #IOLchat noted, in an interview the degree often becomes a mere “talking point” with more emphasis put on finding out about the candidate’s ability to perform the work that needs to be done.

Are you concerned about your future employers’ perception of online degrees? Take the time to present your accomplishments and prepare to respond to questions about both your work and learning experience as you meet with hiring managers in the future.

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