For centuries, earning a university degree required students to actually attend a university—complete with ivy-covered walls, musty library books, and professors droning on and on about one topic or another. Achieving higher education was difficult, so most employers rewarded those who put forth the effort to earn a university degree with better titles, better pay, and better benefits.
However, times have changed. Now those who want to boost their professional prowess can work and attend school through convenient (and often less expensive) online programs. In fact, digital academic opportunities have become so common that it is causing many employers to wonder: Is an online degree an asset or a liability in a new hire?
Do we need online degrees?
In the early days of the Internet, anyone could purchase a phony degree from one of the so-called “diploma mills” that operated online. Thus, recruiters were understandably wary of applications that cited unfamiliar universities or web-based programs, as it was entirely possible that the education was false and the applicant claiming it untrustworthy. Some states enacted strict legislation to punish organizations peddling fake degrees, as well as job applicants citing sham credentials on their resumes. As a result, the number of online diploma mills dramatically decreased in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, legitimate online programs increased. In the past 15 years, the popularity of online education has soared. Today, at least 14 percent of students in higher education are enrolled in programs that are exclusively online, and more than one-third of all university students take at least one digital course.
Nearly all private and public universities offer some type of online education—even prestigious schools like Harvard and MIT. A few websites, like Coursera and Academic Earth, offer authentic classes from top-tier universities free of charge (though certification or a full degree still requires some tuition). As academia goes increasingly digital, recruiters should become accustomed to seeing more and more online programs listed on job applicants’ paperwork.
Some recruiters are going further by actively seeking candidates with a background in online education, as it demonstrates a sense of responsibility that traditional education may omit. Often, online students choose that path because they have other commitments, such as work or family, that make being a full-time on-campus student impossible.
For example, a recruiter reviewing the credentials of a job applicant with a management degree earned online might assume that that person is more than capable of juggling multiple duties successfully, which is indeed ideal for many management positions. Because classes are available all day every day, web-based management students must be disciplined enough to craft their own schedules, and they must adhere to them until their program is complete—no easy task considering the many distractions we face in everyday life. Their graduation proves they are independent and responsible, which could put them ahead of similarly qualified candidates seeking the same management position.
Ultimately, the ubiquity of online education today makes verifying the authenticity of online degrees unnecessary. Instead, recruiters should devote their time to understanding why applicants chose the online route and what benefits their online programs provided that might serve their future careers.
Are there any downsides to online ed?
Some brands may be intent on culling employees only from Ivy League schools; others might prefer the familiarity of traditional campus-based universities and require employees to have a similar background. But studies prove that more than 75 percent of businesses fully embrace workers who have taken advantage of online degree programs. Unfortunately, the remaining 25 percent of businesses continue to resist the idea that online education is equal (or even superior) to traditional schooling.
Still, as online programs grow—and more people have access to higher education thanks to web-based schools—recruiters should expect the number of traditionalists to fall. As long as a school is accredited and a program meets the standard criteria for the field, there is usually little or no difference between online and offline university degrees.
Recruiters should be aware of their clients’ inclinations before interviewing applicants with online backgrounds, but most will quickly learn on their own that workers with online degrees are equal, if not superior, to their traditional peers.
For more on online education, see Higher Ed Offers New Opportunities For Digital Learners.