Employers Recognize Most Applicants' Online Degrees

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Aug 27, 2010
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Nearly 90 percent of HR professionals say online degrees are viewed more favorably today than they were in 2005, but there is still a way to go before they are deemed equal counterparts, according to poll results released Aug. 16, 2010, by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Approximately 450 human resource professionals, 70 percent of whom represented U.S.-based companies, were surveyed July 27-Aug. 6, 2010, about their educational preferences for job applicants. For survey purposes, online degrees programs were defined as those that stipulated that the majority (80 percent or more) of the courses to complete degree requirements were taken online. Traditional degrees programs were defined as those that stipulated that the majority of the courses (80 percent or more) to complete degree requirements were taken at a brick-and-mortar campus, with face-to-face instruction in a physical classroom.

About one-third of organizations (34 percent) reported that job candidates who have obtained their degrees online were viewed as favorably as job applicants with traditional degrees (i.e., brick-and-mortar), according to the SHRM poll report, Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional versus Online Degree Credentials. More than half of organizations (55 percent) indicated that if two job applicants with the same job experience were applying for a job, it would not make a difference whether the job candidate’s degree was obtained through an online or traditional degree program.

Comparison by Organization’s Operations, Union Status

U.S.-based organizations were more likely than organizations with multinational operations to agree that the recession has led to an increase in job applicants with online university degrees.

Organizations with unionized employees (53 percent) were more likely than nonunionized organizations (39 percent) to agree that online degree programs are equally credible with traditional degree programs.

In addition, 73 percent of respondents said that individual courses taken online are equally credible with traditional university degree programs and courses.

Gauging Online Degree Respect

Still, only 49 percent of respondents agreed that online degree programs are equally credible with traditional degree programs, with 60 percent of respondents saying that job applicants with traditional degrees are still preferred over those with online degrees, provided that the work experience is the same. The 60 percent noted for the 2010 survey is, however, a slight decrease from 63 percent noted in the 2009 survey.

“As employers see that the skills and capabilities of employees with online degrees are on par with employees with traditional degrees, there is greater acceptance towards online degree credentials,” said Evren Esen, manager, SHRM Survey Research Center.

Support for and acceptance of 100 percent distance learning universities that offer nothing but online degrees is not as strong, however. Only 39 percent of respondents said programs are equally credible with online degree programs associated with traditional universities.

Many university programs are moving to blended learning approaches that include both online courses and traditional bricks-and-mortar courses making it difficult to distinguish a purely online degree from a traditional degree program. This will likely increase as technology continues to improve the online learning experiences.

Job applicants appear to be attuned to the disparity, too. Only 37 percent of respondents said that applicants noted occasionally or frequently whether their degree is from an online program; this percentage is up, however, from the 30 percent noted in the 2009 survey. Sixty-two percent of the 2010 survey respondents said applicants seldom or never noted whether their degree is from an online program, down from the 68 percent of respondents noted in the 2009 survey. Only 11 percent of organizations stated that job candidates frequently or always identified on their resumes whether their degrees were obtained through an online degree program.

Acceptability Wanes for High-Level Positions

The higher the position within the organization, the less acceptable online degree credentials become, according to the SHRM report. Forty-three percent of respondents indicated that an online degree credential is acceptable for a job applicant seeking an entry-level position, while 40 percent said it made no difference whether the degree was obtained from an online or a traditional program.

For mid-career level positions, the responses were more dispersed: 33 percent of respondents said online degree credentials were acceptable while 35 percent said they were somewhat acceptable; 23 percent said it didn’t matter, but 9 percent said online degree credentials for this level of position were not acceptable.

The willingness to accept online degree programs decreased even further for managerial and executive-level positions. For example, approximately half of respondents thought that online degree credentials were acceptable or somewhat acceptable (20 percent and 37 percent, respectively) for supervisory and directorial positions, while nearly a quarter of respondents thought that this credentialing was unacceptable; less than 20 percent said it didn’t matter.

Forty-two percent of respondents said online degree credentials were not acceptable for executive positions, while 43 percent thought it was acceptable or somewhat acceptable (15 percent and 28 percent, respectively). Only 15 percent of respondents indicated that it didn’t make a difference whether the degree credential was obtained online or by more traditional means.

“Ultimately a person’s job performance is what will determine promotional opportunities,” said Esen. “So once hired for a job, whether an employee obtained a university degree online or not becomes less relevant. How well they do the job is what impacts promotions.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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