SHRM Poll: More U.S. Employers Welcoming Candidates with Online Degrees

By Greg Wright September 29, 2009

When Scott Hildebrand tells people he earned his law degree at home on his computer, the reaction is not always good.

“When you say you got a law degree online, some people will look down their noses at you,” Hildebrand said.

But the 2005 online law degree from Concord University opened career opportunities for Hildebrand, now 47. He passed the bar in California and Washington and now, in addition to being director of public policy for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties in Bellevue, Wash., he is association counsel as well.

HR Weighs In

The negative feedback Hildebrand experienced is fading. A new poll from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals that fewer employers are looking askance at job candidates who earn degrees online. According to SHRM’s Credibility of Online Degrees survey, 76 percent of human resource professionals said online degrees are viewed more favorably than five years ago.

And more than half of the 573 human resource professionals that SHRM surveyed in the United States said individual courses taken through online universities rate equally with traditional university courses. SHRM conducted the survey during the week of July 6, 2009.

“I think [online degrees] are getting accepted more than they were before,” said Justina Victor, a survey research analyst at SHRM who worked on the survey. “I think as time goes by they will grow in popularity.”

At least one other study supports SHRM’s finding. A 2006 survey from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which accredits online schools, indicated that 100 percent of employers said there was no difference in performance between workers who had online degrees and those with traditional diplomas. DETC spokeswoman Brianna Bates said that’s up from 91 percent when DETC last did the study in 2001.

Skepticism Remains

However, prejudices against online degrees persist. Half of human resource professionals surveyed said their organizations still prefer job applicants with traditional university degrees over applicants with online degrees who have similar work experience, according to SHRM’s survey.

And Greg Szymanski, human resources director at Geonerco Management Inc., a Seattle-based management and real estate development firm, said it is important to ensure that job candidates with online and traditional degrees went to accredited institutions and graduated.

In fact, of the human resource professionals who responded to SHRM’s survey, 47 percent said job applicants seldom say on their resumes whether they obtained their degree online.

“I have had a number of experiences where candidates send resumes and list a degree from an obscure college or university, and when Googling the college or university I’ve discovered it’s a diploma mill,” Szymanski said.

Web Acceptance

A decade ago, when the Internet was gaining popularity, there was resistance to using the relatively new medium as a learning tool, said Curtis Bonk, an education professor at Indiana University and author of The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education, (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

But resistance to online education gradually eased and the use of the Internet for education will skyrocket, he said.

“I think that probably we’re at a stage now where 10 percent of learning is online,” Bonk said. “I would say at the end of the decade probably 40 percent to 50 percent will be online or blended [traditional classroom and online learning].”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.4 percent of U.S. college undergraduates took some distance learning courses in 2007-08, up from 15.8 percent in 2003-04 when the center last conducted the survey. Distance learning includes not only online courses but also recorded and live video and audio of lectures and other educational materials. Graduate-level students and professional students are using the Internet to take college courses at an even higher rate, the center said. Twenty-two percent of these students took some distance learning courses in 2007-08, up from 16.2 percent in 2003-04.

There is no dollar estimate on how large the online degree industry is, experts said, because the industry is so varied. There are for-profit schools that offer online degrees only and traditional universities that offer a mixture of traditional and online degrees.

What is known is that enrollment in online courses grew 12.9 percent in 2007, far more than the 1.2 percent growth in the overall higher education student population, according to a 2008 study from the Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium.

There are several reasons why more Americans are pursuing degrees online, experts said.

More people who are juggling jobs and family are finding online courses a convenient way to gain education and move up the career ladder.

In fact, Hildebrand decided to pursue his law degree online because he was the married father of two young children and was already working as director of public policy. Doing his coursework online gave him more flexibility, but he admitted he had to stay disciplined to do the work independently outside the classroom.

“I was in my boxer shorts listening to lectures [online] at 3 a.m.,” he remembered.

Human resource staff are likely becoming more accepting of job candidates with online degrees because over the course of the past decade employers have been adopting online learning to do in-house training, Bonk said. More employees are demanding they get training in this format because they are comfortable with using computers, he said.

In fact, Bonk predicts that in the next decade community colleges will be offering free degrees online and those students who did not complete high school will be able to get their GED by doing work on the web.

“I’m actually calling this century the century of learning,” Bonk said.

Greg Wright is a Maryland-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at

Related Articles:

Upgrading for an Upturn, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, August 2009

Fraud Factories, HR Magazine; September 2008

Employers Warm Up to Online Education; HR Magazine, January 2006

Related Links:

Click to search for accredited online schools:

Distance Education and Training Council



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