How Do Employers View Online Degrees?

While distance education has existed since the nineteenth century when correspondence courses arose in Western Europe, there are still questions about online learning’s effectiveness and a generalized feeling that it’s not the same as a traditional brick-and-mortar experience. For prospective online students, one major concern is how future employers will view a degree achieved online. An oft-cited analogy is online dating, which had a scandalous reputation at its inception. Slowly but surely, however, as services multiplied and people started attending weddings of couples who met on the internet, that perception has evolved. Similarly, online degrees are gaining respect, especially among people with exposure either personally or through accounts of friends and family.

One of the factors contributing to the increased exposure is the growing pool of distance-based students. In its annual survey titled Tracking Online Education in the United States (Feb. 2016), the Babson Research Group found that more than 25 percent of all students in higher ed were enrolled in at least one online course, and a total of 2.8 million students were enrolled in fully online programs. There’s been a trend toward not-for-profit and public institutions, which increased their online student enrollments 26 and 9 percent, respectively, between 2012 and 2014. During that same time, for-profit enrollments dropped 10 percent. One of the most striking findings in the thirteen years of this survey has been the shifting attitude within academia. In 2003, 57.2 percent of chief academic officers and leaders rated the outcomes of online education as the same (or superior) to traditional instruction; by 2015, this figure had swelled to 71.4 percent.

There’s no denying that online education is still dogged by an image problem, largely due to skyrocketing student debt at the hands of exploitative for-profit schools. Despite these headwinds, there are several forces contributing to the continued popularity of online programs. Not only has new technology facilitated people’s access to distance-based degrees, but also a growing number of established, regionally accredited, public and private universities are now offering a full-slate of online degree programs. By illustration, the University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, Penn State University, Arizona State University, and UC Berkeley, among others, made several graduate degree programs available online.

This article includes nine exclusive interviews with company executives on their perceptions of online education, the negative and the positive. It closes with a discussion of what aspiring online students should look for to ensure that their academic background is taken seriously in a hiring context.

Meet the Interviewees: Nine CEOs and Executives

The interviewees come from a range of industries, including technology, finance, medicine, marketing, government, and scientific research. Here is a description of each interviewee’s title, what their company does, and a quote from their exclusive interview with in 2017:

Employer Perceptions of Online Education

In the first three months of 2017, the nine executives with hiring experience graciously weighed in with their perceptions of online education. They responded to three questions in a mix of telephone and email-based interviews:

  • What is your general perception of degrees earned online?
  • Does your view of a job candidate change if he or she received an online degree as opposed to a traditional campus-based degree?
  • Do you think these perceptions will change over time? Under what conditions?

While these employers had widely varying views on distance-based education, there were some consistent themes, both negative and positive.

Positive perceptions of online degrees included:

  • If an institution is rigorous and well-regarded, it doesn’t matter if it was an online program.
  • A person’s job candidacy depends on many factors, not just education.
  • When an online program has a physical campus, employers may assume that the candidate has a traditional degree.
  • Online graduate degrees such as MBAs can indicate someone is self-starting and motivated.
  • Online schools democratize access to education.
  • Online programs better prepare graduates for a modern workplace.
  • The acceptance of online degrees is spreading.

Negative perceptions of online degrees included:

  • There’s a stigma associated with online education, especially at the undergraduate level.
  • Online education doesn’t offer the best preparation for some fields.
  • Getting an online degree is easier and less rigorous than attending a physical campus.
  • The scope of an online degree is more limited than a traditional degree.
  • There are a lot of substandard online institutions.
  • Online degree-holders don’t have as much hands-on experience.

Positive Perceptions of Online Degrees

Perception 1: If an institution is rigorous and well-regarded, it doesn’t matter if it was an online program.
Seven of the nine interviewees indicated that the accreditation and reputation of a school were more important than whether or not a degree was earned online. Mr. Galindo stated directly, “My perception of online education hinges more on the reputation of the educational institution and not the fact that it is online.” Echoing that sentiment, Ms. Karasek said, “I don’t think of online degrees collectively—just like any other education institution, some are more and less rigorous, some are more and less reputable.”

Perception 2: A person’s job candidacy depends on many factors, not just education.
Nearly all of the executives pointed out that notwithstanding a job candidate’s type of degree, academic experience is just one facet of a person’s hireability. Often a person’s experience, portfolio, and other employment-ready demonstrations are more important, particularly in science and technology. Mr. Leybovich put it bluntly: “Basically, if someone has built some cool stuff on their own volition, regardless of the structure of their degree, we take it as a good sign.” Mr. Beaudet also mentioned, “Degrees held and which university someone attended are tertiary criteria. I usually look for recommendations, accomplishments, or even interesting things about a person first.” In the same vein, Mr. Galindo reported that, “An employee’s performance and skill-set are measured during an interview and at the job regardless of the type of educational instruction they received.” Finally, Mr. Gustafson summarized the point eloquently: “In the information technology field, where your degree comes from, or even if you have one is not nearly as significant as if you are proficient at the needed tools of the trade and if you have a good portfolio to share.”

Perception 3: When an online program has a physical campus, employers may assume that the candidate has a traditional degree.
In a hiring context, many employers won’t even ask a candidate directly if they attended an online university, especially if the school is well-known and has a physical campus. In hiring for his San Francisco technology company, Mr. Armstrong spoke about resumes: “I don’t think there’s an asterisk that says ‘online’ or anything like that. From an employment standpoint, I don’t think that would come up in an interview. It’s very possible that an employer just wouldn’t know.”

Perception 4: Online graduate degrees such as MBAs can indicate someone is self-starting and motivated.
Especially at the graduate degree level, many hiring executives softened their skepticism surrounding distance-based education. Online master’s degrees and MBAs in particular were perceived favorably as proof of a candidate’s discipline and initiative. For instance, Mr. Beaudet said, “This is where I have found online degrees to be a positive indicator, such as someone who obtained a traditional scientific degree but then went and sought out an online MBA or a degree in project management. At this point I have viewed the online degree as an indication of drive—they got their education but used the online degree program as an efficient tool to increase their knowledge or skill level.” Mr. Leb spoke to a similar point, mentioning, “If someone has an online graduate level degree, such as an online MBA, I’ll often look at that a bit differently since that person supplemented their education with an online program. I’ll view online certificates for additional skills as favorable to a candidate with a traditional campus-based degree because that signals to me that this person is actively looking to improve their knowledge and skillset.”

Perception 5: Online schools democratize access to education.
Two of the interviewees pointed out that the existence of distance-based schools has allowed institutions to compete for the best, most suitable students regardless of geographical or other constraints. Ms. Karasek stated persuasively, “The internet is removing geographic boundaries to commerce and interpersonal relationships, it will certainly impact education as well. In that sense, online education actually allows schools to compete for the best students regardless of geography and students can attend the best school for them worldwide.” Looking at it from a similar angle, Mr. Graves summarized his view poignantly: “I am a fan of distance delivery because it is an equal opportunity educational system that does not limit based on economics or socio-economic factors (e.g., single parent or principal caregiver roles) that make brick-and-mortar institutions an impossible option for someone who is managing life while trying to earn a degree.”

Perception 6: Online programs better prepare graduates for a modern workplace.
Given the explosion of distance-based careers and the world’s growing reliance on technology to coordinate business, several interviewees admitted that pursuing a degree online may behoove contemporary job-seekers by exposing them to the challenges of modern working environments. Mr. Spearman shared, “Many business teams are virtual these days, especially global. In the latter case, experience with online learning would actually be an asset…versus a competing candidate for a role who has no online group dynamic experience.” Ms. Karasek revealed how an online education could help prepare someone to work at her company: “In some cases, online degrees can indicate that the student pursued education while attending other responsibilities at home or at work. The prioritization and multitasking skills necessary to achieve academically while also succeeding at work or at home are extremely valuable in a fast-paced agency environment like that at Spark Growth and other digital marketing agencies.”

Perception 7: The acceptance of online degrees is spreading.
Overall, a majority of the hiring executives felt that impressions of online degrees were trending positively. Mr. Galindo noted, “As with anything new, the perception should change over time. The adoption of online learning by leading academic institutions will help build trust in that educational method.” Also, several interviewees pointed out that prestigious schools are reshaping people’s perceptions of online learning. For instance, Mr. Beaudet said, “Already some of the top-tier universities are putting out some amazing online courses and my understanding is that the newer ones do a better job of integrating things like office hours, after-class discussion, lab work, etc.” In the same current, Mr. Leb commented, “There are now several online programs from reputable campus-based institutions and I’d expect that to continue to grow. Having these traditional programs put their name and reputation behind online education helps validate the value of these degrees.” Ms. Karasek expressed a similar sentiment: “With well-regarded universities offering MOOCs, online MBAs and more…we’re only going to see online education become more and more common, academically challenging, and respected.” Mr. Spearman added, “Online learning has come a very long way in today’s digital age and the quality of the coursework has significantly improved since I took online courses at Carnegie Mellon 25+ years ago.” Lastly, Mr. Graves summarized the point well, demonstrating the improvements to online education at varied levels: “I believe perceptions of online education are currently changing and generally in a positive direction. Online and distance institutions have proven that they can develop a competitive curriculum that builds core competencies in undergraduate programs and critical reasoning and decision making in graduate-level programs.”

Negative Perceptions of Online Degrees

Perception 1: There’s a stigma associated with online education, especially at the undergraduate level.
Most of the hiring executives were aware of a generalized negative impression of degrees earned online. For some of the interviewees, the unfavorable perception stemmed from long-held beliefs about the experience of higher education. For example, Mr. Galindo revealed, “Tradition and familiarity might cause an employer to be biased against online degrees.” In a similar line of reasoning, Mr. Graves mentioned employers’ bias toward recognizable, typically traditional schools: “Employers place greater emphasis on branded names that are generally considered to be synonymous with curricula content and quality.” Other interviewees pointed out specific factors which influenced their negative views such as accreditation status or the type of degree. Mr. Armstrong said forcefully, “I don’t want to be too harsh here, but not only would I not interview someone who went to an unaccredited online university, I would say that would even be a strike against them.” Furthermore, Mr. Leb revealed a general preference in hiring people with campus-based undergraduate degrees: “If the online degree is [the job candidate’s] only bachelor’s degree then I’ll typically pass on them if they don’t have some other extraordinary skills or experience.”

Perception 2: Online education doesn’t offer the best preparation for some fields.
Several of the executives paid thought to the types of positions for which online training isn’t adequate. For instance, Mr. Gustafson stated, “If I am hiring to fill a position in marketing or finance, then I am going to be more focused on degrees that come from a traditional campus-based institution, but would consider everyone based on their work experience.” A vice president of a prominent tech company who chose to remain anonymous added that for the type of white collar employees he manages, he’d be skeptical of candidates with an online degree, although he’d be more open to those in technical occupations such as programming.

Perception 3: Getting an online degree is easier and less rigorous than attending a physical campus.
As part of the generalized negative impression of online degrees, there’s an assumption that distance-based education isn’t as difficult as a more traditional college experience. Mr. Beaudet spoke to this point and revealed, “Overall I view online degrees as like a partial degree. It carries a sheen of not being that hard to get and not being a good indicator of an actual good education.”

Perception 4: The scope of an online degree is more limited than a traditional degree.
Several interviewees shared their impression that online schools don’t provide the same scope of knowledge and learning opportunities as a brick-and-mortar program. By illustration, Mr. Gustafson said, “While I am unsure if this is true, I generally assume that an online degree is going to be more specific and lack much of the liberal arts education available at a traditional campus.” In the same train of thought, Mr. Leybovich stated, “Not all traditional degree candidates even have [hands-on experience], but they’re often more likely to because of side projects and activities they work on while on campus.”

Perception 5: There are a lot of substandard online institutions.
Given recent news coverage on rapidly rising student debt and fraudulent for-profit colleges—many of them online—there’s a sense that distance-based schools aren’t guaranteed to offer the same quality of education as an on-campus institution. For instance, Mr. Beaudet shared, “The main issue, for me, remains how to help communicate the quality programs from the crap, the Stanford University from the Trump University.” Mr. Armstrong seconded this and spoke at length about subpar engineering training running rampant in the Silicon Valley: “What we do see in San Francisco a lot are these bootcamps. You might have someone who went to college and got a non-engineering degree who completes one of these software engineer bootcamps and they teach you how to write iOS apps in eight weeks. These courses can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and graduates get promised that they’ll secure a job after the program because there’s a shortage and a demand. We don’t even interview people who went to these bootcamps and we get a lot of those resumes.”

Perception 6: Online degree-holders don’t have as much hands-on experience.
Justifiably, many employers are concerned that online schools don’t offer as much empirical experience as on-campus institutions. As proof of point, Mr. Graves said, “Typical brick-and-mortar institutions also include informal opportunities to expand on knowledge either by chance such as knowledge exchanged during casual conversations between classmates or through formally organized tutorial sessions. By contrast, distance delivery requires students to assess their limitations and independently research the material necessary to close the knowledge gap.” Mr. Spearman felt the same way and stressed the importance of having some real experience to complement online learning: “Somewhere along the way there should be some in-residence formal learning experience. For example, an MBA should have at least some in-residence component because there are social interaction skills that are needed to function properly in group settings in an office environment.” Lastly, Mr. Leybovich indicated the importance of ‘not-just-homework experience,’ the extracurricular opportunities which really enhance a person’s job-readiness: “Our perspective on alternatives to traditional campus-based education is that we are open to those candidates, but generally find that they need to have a fair amount of not-just-homework experience to be able to contribute to a small development team where everyone needs to wear multiple hats.”

Conclusions: What to Consider Before Enrolling in an Online Program

I think a strong performance by online-educated employees will be key to changing the perceptions.
Jose Galindo, CEO of MoneyMio

As mentioned in the introduction and reflected in the interviews above, an employer’s perception of an online education is influenced in part by his or her exposure to distance-based learning, either personally or through the experiences of friends and family. Drawing from the knowledge of the nine company executives who were generous to grant interviews to, here’s a summary of what aspiring students are advised to consider before enrolling in an online program:

  • Accreditation: There are various organizations which accredit online colleges and programs, but all entities are not created equal. Be sure to seek out institutional accreditation from one of the regional organizations recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). These include the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC-CIHE), among others.
  • Reputation of the school: As several interviewees mentioned, whether an online program came from a recognizable, respected school makes a huge difference. Schools typically have better standing if they have a long history, high student retention, high graduation rates, and a solid endowment. Also, not-for-profit schools are generally better regarded than for-profit schools.
  • Existence of a physical campus: Related to reputation, whether or not the school boasts a physical campus is an important consideration for some employers.
  • Opportunities for social development: One reason there’s a stigma for online education (particularly at the undergraduate level) is that there’s an assumption that these programs don’t afford students the same opportunities for teamwork, collaboration, or interactions with faculty and peers. Especially in fields related to business and the social sciences, demonstrating an ability to work well with others and communicate effectively are paramount skills for employers.
  • Technology, methods, and resources used: These variables can make or break an online student’s experience. Slate (Sept. 2016) published a piece with scathing complaints about ‘digital hand-raising,’ a seemingly endless electronic queue of distance-based students waiting to make comments during live lectures. According to Slate’s Rachel Cusick, the technology impeded the flow of classroom discussions and highlighted the difficulty of creating community in online spaces. Other platforms may be more effective to this end.
  • The field and degree level: Again, several hiring executives revealed nuanced impressions of online education, showing a preference for distance-based degrees at the graduate level or in computer-based occupations as opposed to in scientific or people-facing careers. Trevor L. shared, “At this point in time, online degrees are great for supplemental education like certificate programs, skill training, or potentially graduate degrees if earned from a reputable program.”
  • Reasons for attending an online program: Finally, employers may ask why a job candidate chose to pursue an online education. Responses to this question should move beyond the convenience and flexibility of web-based learning, perhaps focusing instead on some of the benefits such as the relative autonomy, self-motivation, and requisite time management skills, in addition to the rigors and structure of the program itself.

Overall, as the number of reputable online degree programs continues to swell and employers become more exposed, questions about the credibility of distance-based education are expected to diminish in importance. Ms. Karasek put it perfectly: “Independent third parties, like media outlets, can speed acceptance of online education by creating reputable and clear information about the focus and academic rigor of online programs.” And perhaps with imminent advances in virtual reality technologies, the prospect of having an enriched classroom experience from one’s living room will become a reality, obscuring the line between traditional brick-and-mortar and online education.

About the Author : After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jocelyn Blore traveled the world for five years as a freelance writer. She lived in Japan, Brazil, Nepal and Argentina. In 2015, she took an 11-month road trip across the US, finally settling into Eugene, Oregon. She currently serves as the managing editor for several websites on distance-based programs in nursing, engineering and other disciplines. When Jocelyn isn’t writing about schools or interviewing professors, she enjoys satirizing global absurdities on her blog, Blore’s Razor.