Industry Market Trends

Online Degrees Viewed More Favorably

Oct 13, 2009

While there is still a stigma attached to online education, new data indicate that employer perception of online schools is changing.

By leveraging the Internet, online colleges and universities have opened up countless opportunities to learners. Online learning — learning that takes place partially or entirely over the Internet — has become popular because of its potential for providing more flexible access to content and instruction at any time, from any place.

Reuters reports that online education grew 13 percent last year, and that nearly one-quarter of students now take some online college courses. In 2002, only 10 percent did so. Of more than 18 million U.S. college students, 3.9 million were enrolled in at least one online college course in fall 2007, a 13 percent rise from 2006. Over the same period, traditional on-campus enrollment increased 1 percent.

Adult mid-career professionals, in particular, are flocking to study in online courses and even earn entire degrees through distance learning. The benefits are obvious: They offer convenience, accommodating work and family schedules.

As such, institutions offering online degrees have proliferated in the adult and higher education landscape to meet these needs.

However, many people remain concerned about a certain stigma being attached to their online coursework. Some institutions lack the appropriate accreditation, while some universities — dubbed "degree mills" — award diplomas not worth much more than the paper they are printed on.

Yet "the lingering image of online business schools as diploma mills is oversimplified, to say the least," BNET says.

Already, acceptance of online university degrees is on the rise, gaining in popularity, legitimacy and prestige. Many corporations are hiring applicants with online degrees or providing tuition reimbursement, according to new findings.

"CFOs and faculty believe the quality of online education is as good as face-to-face," I. Elaine Allen, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-author of Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008, recently told eLearn Magazine. Staying the Course is part of an ongoing Sloan Foundation-sponsored project that annually surveys every school of higher education in the U.S., asking questions about their online learning options.

The results of the Sloan study reinforce new findings from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In a July 2009 survey of human resources (HR) professionals across industries, 76 percent of respondents said they view online university degrees more favorably today than they did five years ago. Moreover, individual courses (as opposed to online degrees) taken through online universities are considered as credible as traditional university courses by 58 percent of respondents.

Of the companies that provide tuition assistance for courses, 95 percent of SHRM's respondents said there is no difference in terms of tuition assistance between employees studying through accredited online universities and those studying through accredited traditional universities for the same degree level.

Similarly, a study reports that 83 percent of employers and hiring managers consider online degrees more acceptable than they were five years ago.

"[T]he notion that online study is inferior is not borne out by the evidence," BNET says.

Proponents of online education cite a recent Department of Education study that leaned in favor of blended and online learning.

Examining a 12-year span of studies completed mostly in college and adult-education programs, the U.S. Department of Education reports this year that some online learning (i.e., blended learning) is actually superior to exclusively face-to-face learning. The Education Department report follows other meta-analyses published in the Review of Educational Research, in Teachers College Record and by Concordia University's Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance.

The perceived quality of courses taken over the Internet also depends on the online university offering them.

A 2008 Inside Higher Education article referenced a Zogby International survey indicating that corporate HR directors and CEOs "valued online degrees from well-known colleges more than those from lesser-known institutions." reports that 77 percent of hiring managers consider an online degree received through an established university, such as Duke or Stanford, more acceptable than a degree earned through an Internet-only university, like Capella or Jones International. Some say such an assessment is unfair, as Capella and Stanford have the same regional accreditation and uphold rigorous academic standards. (Source:

Despite the rapid growth of enrollment and more mainstream acceptance of online learning, many recruiters still see an online degree as an inferior credential.

Last year, when asked if employers would give equal consideration to job candidates with online degrees and those with degrees from traditional colleges and universities, 63 percent of respondents said they would favor job candidates with traditional degrees while 35 percent said they would give them equal consideration.

For employers, even though roughly half of the 4,500 brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the United States now offer online education programs, "a cultural shift will be required before employers greet online degrees without skepticism," the Washington Post recently said. "But all the elements are in place for that shift."


Online Education Expanding, Awaits Innovation

by Andrew Stern

Reuters, Oct. 1, 2009

What's an Online MBA Worth?

by Maggie Overfelt

BNET, Sept. 15, 2009

Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008

The Sloan Consortium

How Will Online Courses Weather the Economic Downturn?

by Laurie Rowell

eLearn Magazine, 2009

Credibility of Online Degrees SHRM Poll

Society for Human Resource Management, Sept. 7, 2009

Online Degrees Make the Grade: Employer Acceptance Now Common

by George Lorezno

Western Governors University, July 2008

Hiring Managers Slow to Accept Online Degrees, July 15, 2008

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning

U.S. Department of Education, May 2009

Overview of Common Undergrad Degree Programs Offered Online

A Review of E-Learning in Canada:: A Rough Sketch of the Evidence, Gaps and Promising Directions

by Philip C. Abrami, Robert M. Bernard, C. Anne Wade, Richard F. Schmid, et. al.

Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (Concordia University), April 3, 2006

Teaching Courses Online: A Review of the Research

by Mary K. Tallent-Runnels, Julie A. Thomas, William Y. Lan and Sandi Cooper

Review of Educational Research, Vol. 76, No. 1 (2006)

What Makes the Difference? A Practical Analysis of Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Education

by Yong Zhao, Jing Lei, Bo Yan, Chun Lai and Hueyshan Sophia Tan

Teachers College Record, Vol. 107, No. 8 (August 2005)

We Get No Respect - Well, Maybe a Little

by Doug Lederman

Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 24, 2008

How Do Employers View Online Degrees?

A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges

by Zephyr Teachout

The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2009