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Did You Obtain That Degree Online?

While researching a previous post for job seekers, I used an online calculator to estimate how my salary compares with that of others who do what I do, in my local area. After entering information about my education, I was prompted to answer an unexpected question: “Did you obtain that degree online?” This definitely got my attention.

As a proponent of online education and a career advisor, several flags went up. Somewhere in the system’s algorithm, a degree that is earned online either makes a difference in the salary estimate it provides or is a detail that is being tracked to see if it does at some point make a difference. Either way, it brings an important question to the forefront for prospective students weighing options that are online and on campus – will the type of program have an impact on the salary you can earn after graduation?

The reality is that diploma mills and related congressional investigations into for-profit institutions, have resulted in notoriety for online education and set the tone for low expectations of online graduates. It’s unfortunate that all “online programs” are often lumped into a single category with assumptions based on the worst examples, even though there are many high quality online programs in existence. Differentiating between low and high quality should be part of your research before enrolling, beginning with accreditation.

Should educational format influence salary?

Let’s back track for a moment. Employers, both private companies and public organizations, determine what they are able and willing to pay their employees, and salary negotiation is often a part of the hiring process. The following is a short list of criteria that can account for variance in your salary offer:

  • Years of experience: Ever notice that job vacancies include requests for previous experience? Employers often look to hire employees with a proven track record of related knowledge and skills.
  • Type of employer: You may expect lower salaries at a non-profit organization than at a Fortune 500 company, for example, even if performing similar work. The size of the company and its available resources can also have an impact.
  • Type of work and setting: The skill level of the tasks to be performed and the environment in which the work is to be completed can be factors in salary determination.
  • Industry trends: There may be a “going rate” for work in your field or a wage range that dictates to some degree starting salaries for positions across companies.
  • Education and training: Your level of education, as well as academic major, can be part of salary consideration. And additional training or certification in your field may also be desirable.
  • Location: The cost of living in a particular city or geographical region can impact pay in that area.

Sites like,,, and NACE’s Salary Calculator, offer different ways to estimate what you can expect to earn based on some of the variables listed above.

Determining Your Value

Reports such as those from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce continue to indicate that “education pays,” with college graduates earning more than those without degrees. However, it’s more challenging to find a breakdown of online vs. on campus graduates.

There is some evidence to suggest that while (generally speaking) employers may value online and on-campus degrees differently, these views are changing. Researchers Jeffrey Bailey and Larry Flegle reported last year that “the acceptance of online degrees has improved” as managers hiring online MBA graduates focused on “accreditation, school recognition, group interaction, real life scenarios, and group projects as factors that influenced [their] perception of value” of applicants’ degrees. More online graduates are joining the workforce, and hiring managers are becoming more familiar with their potential. They are also looking more closely at school accreditation and candidates’ previous experience.

As a future online graduate, you should be prepared to handle questions about how you obtained your degree – you never know when it will come up in a networking conversation, as part of an application, or even in a job interview. Describe the value of the program to you and how your experiences as an online student help you to bring value to your employer. Share examples of the projects you worked on in your courses and your reasons for pursing the program you did and in an online format. Know the type of accreditation the program had, and share how the curriculum matched your learning and career goals.

Do your own research with career and salary goals in mind, as you prepare to choose any new program, online or on campus. Find out what employers in your field are saying about online degrees and calculate estimated salaries for those already working in your field and in your local area.

The higher education industry in general continues to refer to “online degrees” but aren’t they just “degrees”? I made a similar argument for dropping the “e” in “eLearning” last year. The line between online and on campus education is blurring, and I predict will continue to blur, as additional traditional institutions offer online degrees alongside their already established on campus programs.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences with online degrees, employment opportunities, and salary expectations.

Image credit: NoDivision, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND