What's the value of an Online Degree?

Online learning is taking off. How can you discern between a reputable degree and a virtual sham?

By Tamara Lytle May 1, 2015
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May CoverThe Internet has enabled people to personalize just about everything—from the articles that show up in their news feeds to the music playing through their earbuds. Now virtual classes from for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix as well as from traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are becoming the iTunes of education. And it’s time for HR to start listening.

“Distance education is bringing about a new revolution where students are putting together their own playlist of curriculum,” says Leah Matthews, head of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which evaluates online degree programs. “Someone who sits for four years on a nice, leafy New England campus is going to become a thing of the past.”

While most institutions of higher learning aren’t on the verge of closing campuses just yet, online degrees are undoubtedly playing a growing role in the new landscape of education.

About one-eighth of students take their higher education courses at a distance (online or through video, satellite or correspondence work), while another eighth take at least some classes at a distance, according to Russell Poulin, director, policy and analysis, for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies, a Boulder, Colo.-based organization that focuses on best practices and technology for distance learning.

“An increasing number of people will come into the workforce whose education was based on online learning,” says Gerry Crispin, principal and co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey-based talent acquisition consulting firm.

That means recruiters and other HR professionals need to be able to determine the value of online degrees, which historically haven’t carried the same cachet as traditional degrees. Some HR professionals are understandably skeptical of distance education programs—perhaps because they have seen one too many late-night infomercials making claims that sound too good to be true. To be sure, unaccredited “degree mills” do exist, but so do legitimate online educational offerings. Companies that discriminate against candidates simply because they have online degrees overlook a diverse pool of potential hires. “Corporations that miss out because of their bias will be the losers,” Crispin says.

The Online Revolution

Interest in online learning is growing rapidly, while interest in traditional education is waning. From 2012 to 2013, distance education enrollment rose 1.8 percent, compared with a drop of 4 percent in overall higher education enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Education. There were 5.5 million distance education students in 2013, according to the department. But that figure may undercount the total online student population because of the way some schools report their enrollment.

One big reason for the trend toward online learning is that it is filling a niche that until recently hasn’t been addressed by traditional education: the need for a flexible, on-your-own-schedule approach that works well for nontraditional students—older people, those with families, full-time workers, lower-income students, minorities and others, says Gary A. Berg, associate vice president at California State University Channel Islands (a four-year public university near Los Angeles) and author of Lessons from the Edge: For-Profit and Nontraditional Higher Education in America (Praeger, 2005), which took an in-depth look at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution.

At for-profit Ashford University, 49 percent of the students are minorities, 72 percent are female and 25 percent are associated with the military, according to Lora Reed, assistant professor at Ashford’s Forbes School of Business. Ashford started in Iowa as a traditional institution in 1918, but now the majority of its students are online learners. Reed teaches virtually from her home near Tampa Bay, Fla.

Other drivers of the trend toward online learning include the following:

  • Financially squeezed public colleges and universities are looking for new markets. So many elite public and private schools now offer online education, which has improved the reputation of online learning.
  • Improved technology and bandwidth over the past decade have allowed widespread access to online learning.
  • People, especially ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with technology, have become accustomed to integrating the Internet into many areas of their lives.

Questionable Practices

While online degrees are becoming more common, some online programs have prompted concerns about “degree mills” that are more focused on taking students’ money (and their federal aid) than on providing quality education.

Some bad actors have been accused of having poor instructors, few support services for students and low graduation rates. For-profit schools, in particular, have faced scrutiny from the federal government. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, former chair of the Senate committee that oversees education, led a 2012 investigation of for-profit schools and has introduced legislation requiring more oversight and accountability from schools. “My investigation made clear that taxpayers have been making a huge annual investment in for-profit colleges that continue to leave millions of students with high debt but little increased earning potential,” Harkin stated.

For-profit schools are, by definition, motivated by money, while nonprofits and public schools tend to focus more on students’ learning, says Linda Livingstone, dean of the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., and chairwoman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accrediting organization. While some for-profits may offer a good education, none are currently accredited by Livingstone’s association. In the absence of accreditation, employers need to seek out more information.

Facing increasing criticism, some institutions have changed. There was a time when some for-profits would recruit pretty much anyone who could pay the tuition, regardless of whether the student had any chance of academic success. Nowadays, however, many such schools have become more selective. In fact, online degrees today are primarily earned not at for-profit institutions, which account for 32 percent of distance learning enrollment, but at private nonprofits and public colleges and universities, which together account for nearly 70 percent of online students, Poulin says.

How It Works

So how do virtual courses work?

In the online world, “office hours” might involve phone calls with students, which is what Reed at Ashford does for her introduction to HR course. Assignments often include instructional videos or online reading, and the syllabus, lectures and homework are typically posted on a common digital discussion forum.

DeVry University, also a for-profit institution, uses a digital platform where students interact with the professor and each other via a chat function, e-mail and video, says Donna Rekau, assistant provost at DeVry, who has a master’s degree in human resource management. Study groups can occupy their own sections of the class’s online virtual space to work on drafts of projects together, students can check virtual grade books to see how they are doing, and faculty can post feedback through audio or video comments.

DeVry’s capstone HR class has the same course objectives, project requirements, grading and content as the school’s face-to-face class. Students are exposed to the same information whether they are sitting in classrooms in Florida or California or at home, Rekau says. DeVry tracks grades, completion rates and test results to compare online students to in-person counterparts and finds little difference, she says.

Some fields are better suited to online education than others. Computer science and information technology are natural fits, says Berg, who sits on a California state board to develop online programs. But online learning might not be a good fit for health and science fields that require laboratory work or hands-on training.

“Learning to give a shot to a human being only works to a point online,” Crispin says. “At some point, you need to practice on a real person.”

Valuable Skills

In some ways, online learning may actually be more rigorous than the traditional sort. “You have to be an active, engaged learner,” Matthews says. Students need to be disciplined and self-motivated to meet deadlines.

And there’s no hiding in the back of the classroom without ever raising a hand. Online classes typically require participation, and it’s easier to track who is and isn’t weighing in when it’s all recorded in bits and bytes.

In this way, online education is not only mirroring what’s happening in the workplace but also preparing students for the emerging work environment. Employees are increasingly working at a distance, and online degree graduates already have proved that they can effectively communicate and engage online.

Online learning is “consistent with where we are going with employers and teams,” Reed says. Employers need people who are self-motivated and who can work independently and collaborate online with colleagues, including critiquing each other’s work—exactly the skills that online learning builds, she says.

And, “as the workplace increasingly uses technology,” Rekau says, “it makes sense to have students who have shown through their online studies that they are technologically savvy.”

What to Look For

There are many ways for HR professionals to suss out the quality of a candidate’s online education, including by looking closely at transcripts and the school’s reputation, by testing for competencies, and by listening to what their HR colleagues have to say about the college’s graduates.

A transcript might not mean as much for a potential hire long out of college, but, for recent graduates, it shows what they’re good at and what choices they made, says Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting organization.

HR should evaluate a school’s academic reputation by looking at publicly available reports that list retention, endowment and graduation rates and where alumni get hired.

Employers often base their assessments of degrees on familiarity with an institution, whether it’s because a school is nearby or because the school’s sports teams are playing for championships. But that’s not the best gauge of quality.

Instead of gravitating toward the familiar, look at outcomes for graduates in the work world and check whether the school promotes its quality standards, whether the school website has any depth to it and, of course, whether it is accredited and by what organization.

It’s also valuable to ask why a candidate chose to pursue online education—it gives insight into the person’s background and analytical skills.

Shoddy or Reputable? A Key to Accreditation

For HR practitioners trying to sort out the value of online degrees, the secret decoder ring is accreditation.

International. As companies become increasingly international, they will have the challenge of sorting out the merits of degrees from many countries. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business has begun looking at schools internationally. The group considers the quality of the faculty, the standards for admission, the quality of the education provided and the level of scholarly work done there. Some countries have government accreditors to help guide the way.

National. National accreditation groups primarily deal with vocational schools, religious institutions and other special institutions.

Regional. The U.S. is divided into six regions. Seven commissions offer regional accreditation that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Regional accreditation looks at an entire institution, not just a particular department. It’s a seal of approval that makes students at those schools eligible for federal financial aid. Regional accreditation is especially important for students with less specialized degrees, like English, that don’t require licensing exams.

Program. This type of accreditation covers a particular degree program within a school—say, the business school or a nursing program.

Not so credible. Technology has made it easy for so-called degree mills to set up their own “accreditation” that isn’t a valid guidepost to quality. When in doubt, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org) is a good place to look for information about the relative value of accrediting organizations.

Additionally, HR conferences are a great place to ask other HR professionals about how graduates of particular online schools have fared as employees.

More companies today are building tests for skills, knowledge and competencies that the candidate should have learned during college, and Crispin advises HR departments to test graduates’ competencies during the recruiting process. “Education is no guarantee of performance,” he says, “whether it’s traditional or online education.”

Still skeptical of online degrees? Look no further than elementary school to understand the future. Matthews says her 11-year-old son must comment on blogs as part of his regular assignments. “Distance education is closer than you think. It’s embedded in learning at all levels,” Matthews says.

HR must keep pace. We all need to be at least as smart as our fifth-graders.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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