This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
Colleges and universities are continuing to expand both the number of online courses and online degree programs available to students. The website eLearners.com states that roughly 70 percent of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions offer online degrees.
During this increase and evolution of online programming, much research has been done that documents the quality and efficacy of these programs relative to traditional face-to-face courses. But there remains a crucial question that has not been as extensively studied: How do employers perceive the overall quality of online degree programs and the students who graduate from them?
There are relatively few articles published in peer-reviewed journals on this topic. I was able to locate one literature review by Columbaro & Monaghan (2009) published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, in which the authors summarized the results of five studies examining employer or “gatekeeper” perceptions of online degrees. A “gatekeeper” could include anyone an applicant or an applicant’s employment materials might come in contact with during the application/hiring process. These gatekeepers could include administrative assistants, human resource professionals and application screeners, as well as direct reports for a specific position an applicant is applying for.
The industries represented in the studies summarized in the literature review included higher education, healthcare, business, engineering, information technology, telecommunications and data systems, among others. Columbaro & Monaghan wrote, “In summary, all scholarly research to date has concluded that the ‘gatekeepers’ have an overall negative perception about online degrees.” This literature review was published in 2009, so it is relatively old; however, the few studies I could find that have been published in peer-reviewed journals since then report similar findings.
In contrast, there have been increasing numbers of articles written on this topic that have appeared in more-popular media outlets such as The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, and many lesser-known blogs and websites. The overall tone of these articles is usually more positive in nature when compared with the scientific literature.
Additionally, there have been a number of surveys conducted by research and advisory services organizations such as Eduventures as well as by national associations such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) on perceptions employers have regarding online degree programs. The results of these surveys also appear to be more positive compared with the studies reported in the Columbaro & Monaghan literature review. For example, I saw one survey from SHRM conducted in 2013 that reported nearly 90% of human resource professionals had a more positive outlook of online programs compared with five years previously. The methodology of how data was gathered and analyzed is not always made available in these types of surveys, and the results are usually not peer-reviewed, so caution should be exercised when weighing their results.
Even though employer perceptions of online degrees reported in scientific literature vs. popular media outlets can be quite different, there is fairly strong agreement between the two sources about why employers are sometimes skeptical of hiring applicants with online degrees. In addition, there are factors that might cause employers to view applicants with an online degree more favorably.
First, some common reasons that employers might be skeptical of online degrees include these beliefs: online courses are not as rigorous; there is more cheating in online courses; there is less student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction in online courses; and finally, the idea that students deciding to complete an online degree program are taking the easy way out. I’ve heard firsthand some of these same concerns from faculty who were exploring the idea of teaching an online course.
Factors that result in potential employers viewing applicants with online degrees more positively include: if the degree was obtained at an accredited institution; if the employer recognizes the name of the institution; and if the employer himself has had a positive experience with online education (e.g., earned a degree online or hired a previous employee whose degree was earned online and whose job performance was excellent).
In preparation for writing this article, I decided to do a bit of investigative reporting. I called three employment/staffing agencies in my area to inquire about their perception of college degrees earned online. (Keep in mind this was a sample size of three.) All three directors I spoke with reported that of clients (employers) contacting them to request staff for positions requiring a college degree, not one ever mentioned that a candidate who earned an online degree would not be considered.
Also, all three of them said they have absolutely no bias against online schools or degrees earned online as opposed to degrees earned at more traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. However, general name recognition and reputation of the school from which a degree was earned is more important than any other educational element when staffing agents review résumés of potential workers they are attempting to place.
For jobs where there is a certification test or exam following attainment of a degree, but preceding employment (a nursing board examination to become an RN or an exam to become a Certified Public Accountant, for example) the mode of attaining the degree (e.g., online, blended, face-to-face) might not be as significant a factor; the board or certification exam often is meant to demonstrate that minimal levels of competency and proficiency have been achieved prior to being allowed to work in that field.
Anecdotally, I’m starting to hear of more situations where employers are encouraging their employees to complete degrees online so they can get the additional skills and knowledge they may need for promotion or advancement within a company. Completing a degree online might make it more likely that an employee could obtain the additional schooling without a concurrent break in employment.
Overall, even though the scientific evidence doesn’t support it at this time, I do think we are starting to see a positive shift in how employers view online degree programs. I believe one, if not the primary factor that will continue to positively impact employers perceptions, is the quality of online degree programs and students who graduate from them.
Columbara, N & Monaghan, C: Employer perceptions of online degrees: A literature review. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration (2009), Volume 12, Number 1