The Value of an Online Degree

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More and more colleges and universities are offering online degree programs. The rationale in most cases relates to accessibility and flexibility. Online degrees are accessible to students from anywhere in the world and are not restricted by geographic boundaries and proximity to campus. Online degrees allow learners to engage in the course material at flexible times that better meet the needs of their hectic lives with competing expectations and obligations. Anna Maria College has been offering online degrees for a number of years.

Questions that often get raised relate to the quality of these degree programs. Are they of the same quality as an on-ground (face to face) learning environment? Are they perceived by the public as valid and credible? The educational quality issue has been answered repeatedly through extensive research. Quality learning has much more to do with the instructor, course content, pedagogical approaches, levels of student engagement, etc. than with modality (on-ground or online). Perhaps I will return to this topic in a future blog.

But there is less evidence related to external perceptions. So I was interested in a recent headline that read, “Employers View Online, Traditional Degrees Equally.”  The article compiled data from a number of research studies conducted by credible organizations … some that engage in online educational programs and services and others that address more widespread higher ed issues. The article itself was sponsored by an institution promoting its own online university. But I think the data is both valuable and valid.

According to studies conducted by the Zogby International Survey and Inside Higher Ed.com, the U.S. News and World Report, the Sloan Consortium, the Society for Human Research Management, and the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, employers and recruitment professionals view online degrees and traditional degrees equally if they meet three criteria.

The first criterion is accreditation. Employers and recruiters feel strongly that only online degree programs that are accredited are equivalent to traditional programs. It is interesting to note that U.S. News and World Report, which publishes a list every year of the ”Best Online Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree Programs,” will only include those that are regionally accredited.

The second criterion is that the online degree program is offered by a college or university that also has a traditional campus. While 70% of academic leaders in the Sloan Consortium Study expressed some confidence in online only institutions, the percentage increases to 89% if the online program is offered by an institution that also has a traditional campus. This high level of support for programs from colleges and universities with a traditional campus was also expressed by HR Directors, CEOs and hiring managers (Zogby Survey).

The third criterion relates to brand. Online programs are viewed more often as equal to traditional degree programs if the institution offering the program has an established brand. If the college or university has name recognition and a good reputation, the online programs are judged to be the same in quality as the traditional programs.

The growth in online education has been exponential. The reputation of these programs has been negatively impacted by too many for-profit institutions that are viewed as being “diploma mills.”  What is clear from these studies is that employers and recruiters are more discerning and assess a person’s degree carefully. If the degree is awarded from a traditional college, regionally accredited, and well respected, the online degree is equally valued.

As more and more well respected colleges and universities expand their online degree options, this can only be a good thing for those interested in quality education in a more flexible and accessible modality. It is nice to see that students have more and more choices. It is nice to know that these students’ efforts will be respected … if they make the right choice!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Tuesday, 22 July 2014