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Measuring the Value of an Online Degree

Illustration of a person obtaining an online degree through a computer.

Behind a computer screen or in a lecture hall: where do students get the best education? Employers are, unsurprisingly, dying to know the answer when it comes to online education. Can an online degree – or distance education, as it is otherwise known – truly compare to learning in the classroom among student peers and faculty? Does an online degree adequately prepare the student for the working world?

illustration of mouse plugged into stack of books

Despite the lingering hesitancy of employers, more and more are warming up to this mode of education and accepting it as a legitimate alternative to traditional face-to-face education.[1] After all, employers can’t afford to be too picky when it comes to whether or not a degree is attained in person or online. With two-thirds of all jobs in the United States projected to require education beyond high school level over the next decade, a greater number of Americans are taking advantage of the convenience and flexibility that an online education offers in order to better secure employment.[2]

According to an an annual report published by the Babson Survey Research Group, approximately 5.8 million students were enrolled in at least one distance learning course in fall 2014 – a 3.9 percent increase from the previous fall – and numbers are anticipated to only continue increasing.[3]

It’s evident that when on-campus learning may not be feasible or desired for a variety of reasons, more students are finding that the way of the web can fill its gap and provide a substantial, valuable education – that is, when it’s done right.

Not All Online Programs Are Alike, or Accredited

Similar to any traditional college, the strength of an online degree depends on the quality and resources of the institution, the design of the program and its courses, and the training of the faculty. What’s more, not all subjects will naturally transfer into an online medium, and some disciplines are not as developed online as others. With business administration, nursing, and computer science leading the way as the most popular degrees pursued among both undergraduate and graduate students, this suggests that there is greater investment and development channeled into these types of programs. [4]

However, what leaves many students and employers weary of considering online degrees in the first place is the extensive amount of illegitimate institutions that have and continue to pop up. What makes an online school a reputable source of education is first and foremost whether or not it has been accredited.

However, what leaves many students and employers weary of considering online degrees in the first place is the extensive amount of illegitimate institutions that have and continue to pop up. What makes an online school a reputable source of education is first and foremost whether or not it has been accredited.

Accreditation is the formal process of a trustworthy outside, nongovernmental authority verifying that the online institution or program meets certain academic standards, either national or regional.[5] No employer wants to discover that a job candidate received a degree from a so-called diploma mill: a company that quickly ‘churns’ out degrees to students who pay a flat fee and are not required to do much, if any, coursework.[6]This is not what an education looks like.

Illustration of diploma and graduation cap coming out of computer

Similarly, uninformed students who may get swept up in the promises of a quick-and-easy degree don’t want to realize too late that they have been duped and left with a useless certificate or diploma. U.S. News states that accreditation helps prevent such mishaps by providing “more assurance that there is oversight regarding the [institution’s] instruction and their authority to issue degrees.”[5] Both students and employers should confirm that an online program or school is accredited before affiliating themselves with it.

But to make matters worse, not all accreditation is legitimate either. Plenty of fraudulent accreditation organizations work in concert with diploma mills to mislead prospective students. According to U.S. News, an accreditor is valid when it is recognized either by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Quality and Reputation Underpin the Value of an Online Degree

At the same time, an accredited school doesn’t necessarily guarantee a quality education. A review board can ensure that an online institution is meeting basic requirements and standards, but exceptional education goes beyond the bare minimum to provide students the knowledge, experience, and support necessary to excel in their studies and in the workplace.

photo of woman teaching through computer with headset

When considering the strength of an online degree, it’s important to realize that an academic institution’s services and infrastructure are not necessarily limited just because the school is online. In fact, many online programs include academic advising, career placement assistance, financial aid services, access to a live librarian, mentoring, technical support, real-time tutoring, and even writing workshops in addition to their courses. These are all important resources you would similarly expect on a traditional campus that nurture the development of a student.

Similarly, whether you’re in the digital sphere or physical classroom, a strong education primarily depends on the engagement of the professor. And serious online programs take their faculties seriously, too. The online MBA programs at Arkansas State University (Jonesboro), top ranked by U.S. News for its faculty, states on its webpage that “we allow only our terminally qualified, academically qualified, graduate appointed faculty to teach in the online MBA and do not hire any adjuncts to teach in this program.”[7] Such educators, who often receive extra training in order to teach remotely, are instrumental in devising rigorous academic programs and can make or break a student’s success at an online institution.

All of this is to say that attaining a quality education remotely is possible, it just depends on the institution and program. Learning about the reputation of online schools and keeping up to date with the top ranked online educational programs can key you in on the quality of any given online degree. Knowing that an online school is affiliated with a well-established university, such as the University of North Carolina and Carnegie Mellon University’s respective online MBA programs, is encouraging as an employer. Looking into a school’s graduation and employment rates (a simple Google search should do the trick) can also help give you a general picture of how well it prepares a graduate for the professional world.

But What Does It Look Like?

Outside of the uncertainty of the institutional legitimacy of an online program, its rigor and its reputation, employers’ enduring hesitancy toward online programs likely has a lot to do with the fact that many are unfamiliar with what this form of education actually entails. As online programs keep developing and experimenting with new educational methods and technologies, it might be more difficult for employers to envision the learning that occurs in an online classroom. Do students even talk with one another or the professor? How is their performance measured? What is it?

uncertain-man
collaboration

Asking job candidates about their experiences in an online academic setting can not only clarify what online education looks like today, but it can also reveal applicable skills uniquely gained through this mode of study. While many employers are concerned that an online education is too isolating and inhibits cooperative learning, online educators and recipients of online degrees often speak to the centrality of group work to their online learning. With digital communications becoming increasingly relevant and varied within individual offices and in connection with remote locations, “group work in online courses provides students with important virtual collaboration skills for the 21st-century workforce,” writes U.S. News.[8]

Working together online, students need to collaborate in close communication, balance one another’s varied schedules, and be accountable for their individual work in order to turn in quality projects on time.

“You have to be more organized,” says Philip Powell, faculty chair of online graduate programs at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, in U.S. News. “You have to be more tuned in to people’s work habits and styles and rhythms.” The strictly-online format also necessitates that students learn how to navigate new technologies and be able to select which programs best suit their project needs.[8]

The Determination of an Online Student

Because online learning is still relatively new, the online student is also in a way inherently exceptional by taking the path less traveled. Asking about a candidate’s reasons for choosing a specifically online-route of education can illuminate distinctive attributes about prospective employees. This often includes the desire to challenge themselves and achieve more despite extenuating circumstances that might prevent them from pursuing a traditional path of education.

Raising a child, taking care of a disabled family member, managing one’s own illness, or having a full-time job typically discourage people from simultaneously pursuing a degree in any format. But with the flexibility and convenience that online programs offer, students can attend to life’s demands while also furthering their personal career goals. The ability to juggle all of their responsibilities while attaining an online education certainly makes for a dedicated and determined employee.

juggle-life-work-balance

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With online education potentially keeping students on the ball, savvier to new technologies and especially sensitive to the needs of their team, online degrees are nothing to fear and can even mark a quality job candidate. Whether attained online or on campus, the education of a potential employee is a key factor to consider when hiring. But finding experienced and educated talent is no easy task.

At MPA Recruitment Marketing, we are committed to matching companies around the nation with the right employees. Combining our marketing and human resources expertise for over 20 years, our professionals know how to communicate a corporate culture in a way that attracts the talent your company needs. Contact us today at 732-214-9600 to get started.

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