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Are online degrees respected? (And how should you choose one?)

Online degrees are an effective, respected alternative to on-campus learning. Find out what prospective students and employers should look for in an online program.
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Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor on
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When students returned to school in the fall of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, 97% more students were in online classes than just one year earlier. That's according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

The dramatic shift to online learning was possible because students, schools, and employers respect online degrees.

Even before the pandemic, online learning was on the rise because of its flexibility, accessibility, and convenience. 

Let's dive into why employers value online training and what students should look for. 

For extra insight, we spoke to Jeffrey Williams, senior director of career and student services at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. Williams coaches students in using their education to reach their career goals. Responses were edited for length and clarity.

What do employers think of online degrees?

Employers perceptions of online degrees are steadily improving as online learning has increased in popularity and effectiveness. A 2019 survey from Northeastern University found that more than 75% of employers valued online learning the same or more than five years prior. 

Online learning works better for some majors than others, which could impact perceptions in some fields.

Most of the surveyed employers believed that work-integrated learning — connecting what you learn in class to its use in the workplace — was essential to quality online education. Thus, degrees that can effectively simulate real-world projects online were more respected.  

While online colleges have found ways to offer all types of training, it's more difficult to find online programs in majors with heavy practical requirements, such as medical science, than in the arts and humanities. 

ZDNet: In general, do employers these days care about whether a degree was earned online or on campus?

Jeffrey Williams: Most employers are more accepting of the concept of online degrees, as long as the degree is from an accredited university or college. 

Many well-known colleges now offer courses and degrees online. There are thousands of graduates and tenured people in the workforce who graduated from online degree programs across the country who've been successful in landing meaningful work. 

Finally, it is not required to note [on your resume] if your degree was earned online or on campus. Many colleges use the hybrid model when offering courses. 

Choosing an online degree with credibility: What to look for

When choosing an online degree, you should ensure your program of choice has strong quality indicators. The table below outlines what to look for.

Accredited

All schools you consider should have institutional accreditation, which is necessary for financial aid, postgraduate licensure, and continuing education. 

Programmatic accreditation may also be available or required depending on the discipline. Applicants can check with their local industry associations and employers to see what accreditation they need.

Nonprofit college

Nonprofit colleges offer regulated and accredited programs. These schools reinvest incoming funds into the programs and school operations. 

Conversely, for-profit schools earn profits from student tuition and have different accreditation requirements. What they do with the profits is up to them.

Good reputation

A school's reputation can have a positive impact on students and employers. Schools with reputations for running elite programs and producing top-notch graduates provide quality assurances to students. 

Employers trust the education from well-known institutions and use it as one of the leading factors when determining quality.

Program length

Online programs offer varying program lengths. Online training can be more flexible and accessible, which creates more opportunities to graduate sooner than in on-campus programs. Schools even offer accelerated bachelor's degrees.

Evaluate how fast-tracked training will impact your workload. You should also ensure the training meets all postgraduate licensure or certification requirements regarding study and placement hours. 

Method of student payment

When looking at online college costs, you should also check out the available payment methods and support systems. For example, ensure your school choices have access to federal aid and government grants. 

Schools may also provide their own scholarships in addition to government and private options. 


READ THIS: What is the FAFSA?


ZDNet: What aspects of an online degree might employers be impressed by? What might make them wary?

Jeffrey Williams: Due to the past and tradition of how college and learning has been, the perception is that brick-and-mortar colleges are more productive. 

However, there are advantages to attending an online school. The Department of Education found that "students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction." 

A major hesitation is that some employers may be wary because they feel less time and hands-on attention will be given to the course of study. This can cause employers to think you are not prepared or as educated. 

Should I earn my degree online or on campus?

Choosing between online and on-campus degrees is often a matter of preference. 

While both degree types can lead you to the same credentials, professions, and opportunities, each type offers benefits over the other. Here are some factors to consider.

Online degrees:

  • Access schools and programs from all across the country
  • More flexible and accommodating schedules
  • Easier to maintain employment while studying
  • Fewer travel requirements

On-campus degrees:

  • More program options and fewer study restrictions
  • Greater levels of involvement and interaction
  • More hands-on practical training opportunities 
  • Greater access to on-campus facilities and support services


ZDNet: Are there any types of degrees where an employer might strongly prefer that you receive your education in person, rather than online?

Jeffrey Williams: This is strongly dependent on the field or industry and the position you are applying for. 

Education, information technology, cybersecurity, forensic science, and most liberal arts and science degrees are usually not an issue. Online degrees earned for advancement in the military, law enforcement, firefighting or emergency services are rarely an issue. 

However, fields such as medicine, engineering, law, architecture, and a few notable STEM fields can prove difficult to convince or sell to an employer if they were earned online. 

For degree programs that need to be approved by a state licensing board, having an online degree can cause an issue.

Making the most of your online degree

Online learning provides incredible opportunities for learners nationwide, but there are some shortcomings you should know about.

For example, online learners may not get the same level or type of engagement with peers or instructors. They might also miss out on campus facilities and services, such as networking opportunities and extracurriculars. 

Online colleges can also offer a cheaper, more flexible alternative to a traditional degree that may help you advance your goals. You can supplement your experience by networking with your peers, finding internship opportunities, taking extra classes, and more.

ZDNet: What can online students do so that they're just as competitive and equipped in the job market as those who went to in-person schools?

Jeffrey Williams: Students can be equipped in the job market with their online degrees by making sure the material learned in their fields of study is successfully demonstrated and applied during the interview process and beyond. 

It's important to detail any real-world experience such as a capstone, which is usually hands-on and demonstrates applied learning. 

Another is to mention and demonstrate the tangible skills you obtained throughout the degree program (e.g., fluency in computer programming languages, project management skills, etc.).

More about Jeffrey Williams

Jeffrey Williams, a black man with short hair wearing a pink suit jacket and a black shirt and tie, smiles in a professional headshot.

Jeffrey Williams is the senior director of career and student services at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. Jeffrey has over seven years of career advising, career networking, resume writing, and career planning experience. He educates students on best practices for attaining their career goals. 

Jeffrey is a powerful force in the workplace and uses his positive attitude and tireless energy to encourage others to work hard and succeed while motivating them to excel in their careers. He earned his master of public policy at Georgetown University, holds a project management certification, and is a certified professional career coach. 

Jeffrey Williams is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network. 

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