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Succeeding with an online degree

Online degrees have come a long way in the last decade. Today, many of the nation's top universities have jumped on the e-learning bandwagon, offering students the opportunity to earn a prestigious degree from the comfort and convenience of their own home. But even with this growing acceptance in academia, many students still worry if an online degree program can hold as much weight in the job market as a traditional one. For those interested in pursuing an online credential, but unsure of how it will look to potential employers, we've answered a few of the common questions concerning online degrees in the workplace.

  1. Are online degrees accepted and respected by employers?
  2. Can I get a job with an online degree? How do I prepare?
  3. What is a virtual internship?

Are online degrees accepted and respected by employers?

Online degrees have made a lot of progress in the last several years, both in terms of the education they provide and the reputation they carry in the workforce. Today's employers view most online degrees the same way they view degrees that are earned in the traditional way, in that the school that issued the degree tends to matter more than whether or not it was earned in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Naturally, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure that an individual online degree is worth pursuing. Here are a few vital details about reputable online colleges, as well as some insight into the general standing of certain online degrees in the real world.

How online education can enhance careers

Workforce statistics are pretty clear: education pays. According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals with a bachelor's degree earned around 70 percent more than those with just a high school diploma in 2013. Here's how the rest of the year's median annual salary figures break down by education level:

  • High school diploma: $33,852
  • Some college, no degree: $37,804
  • Associate degree: $40,404
  • Bachelor's degree: $57,616
  • Master's degree: $69,108
  • Professional degree: $89,128

The numbers speak for themselves. With the improving reputation of online degrees in the workforce, it makes more sense than ever for students to continue their education online.

Online master's degrees are particularly good for professionals already working in their chosen career field. Continuous work experience can look good on a resume, and certain online degrees -- online MBAs, for example -- have been in workforce rotation for so long that employers hardly notice whether the degree was earned online or in person.

Are online degrees respected by all employers?

Employers have brightened considerably toward online degrees in the last decade or so, but that unfortunately doesn't mean that the attitude of acceptance is present in every human resources department. A 2014 story by US News and World Report indicates that negative perceptions of online degrees may still exist in about 25 percent of companies.

A few academic reviews of online learning literature have discovered employers with negative opinions of online degrees tend to harbor the same few conventional stigmas. Here are a few of the most common ones, along with some helpful details about the online education experience that might help debunk these misconceptions:

Common stigma #1: "Online students don't interact with classmates or professors and never learn how to communicate professionally."

The truth is that dedicated students in online courses find themselves in nearly constant communication with professors and classmates, whether over email, on message boards, via telephone, or with videoconferencing software. Sure, an online degree might be accomplished without a high level of connectivity, but the same could also be said for most types of degrees earned on campus.

Common stigma #2: "Students don't learn discipline in online programs because it's so easy to cheat."

It's actually far from easy to cheat in online courses. "Distance learning institutions verify the identity of students when they access the learning management system," says Dr. Patrick Jones, vice provost at Excelsior College, "and have implemented a host of fraud detection capabilities in recent years, such as keystroke speed, eye-tracking software, and plagiarism detection technology. The sheer number of assessment events within an online course provide ample opportunity for an instructor to detect anomalies."

Common stigma #3: "Courses that lead to online degrees are less rigorous than those in traditional programs."

Academic rigor is the same sort of spectrum for online universities as it is for traditional schools. "Specialized and regional accreditation agencies evaluate the rigor and quality of online and traditional degree programs based on the same standards," Dr. Jones says. Accreditation is an important point to cover, so here's some more about it and how it can help students identify reputable online programs.

Accreditation: The true academic standard

At least a portion of employers' negative attitudes toward online degrees probably stems from the "diploma mill" institutes that soiled the reputation of distance learning long before online school came on the scene. Predatory pseudo-schools do still exist, but the Web makes it possible to double-check an institution's credentials before you get caught in a trap.

Higher education accreditation in the U.S. is typically overseen by regional organizations, although some institutions are accredited by national or specialized accrediting bodies. Here are a few sources students can use for more info on the accreditation process, or to verify that a certain school is legitimately accredited:

  • U.S. Department of Education's Overview of Accreditation
  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation Database
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

In addition to the school being accredited, it also tends to be important to employers that the degree-granting institution has a name they recognize. Plenty of respected traditional institutions are offering online degrees, these days; make sure to do plenty of research and the right decision should make itself clear.

Can I get a job with an online degree? How do I prepare?

People are sometimes hesitant to pursue an online degree because of the misconception that these credentials may not be accepted or respected by employers. The truth is that perceptions of online degrees have been changing in the last several years, and employers are coming to understand that the virtual classroom can provide just as valuable an education as a traditional campus.

Not only are perceptions changing, but more and more established universities are jumping on the online degree bandwagon. Here's some detailed info about today's offerings in online education and the changing perspectives on their value in the workplace.

Knowledge is top priority

For most employers, a candidate's knowledge areas and skill proficiencies far outweigh the details of their degree. Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at digital marketing agency Blue Fountain Media, echoes this sentiment.

"As a general rule of thumb," says Lambert, "I focus on the skillset and experience the prospect communicates to me before even looking to see what they got their degree in and where."

What's more, the numbers show that Ms. Lambert is not alone. A 2013 survey by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation indicates that 84 percent of business leaders polled put more emphasis on the knowledge a candidate possesses than on such details as whether a degree was earned online or on campus.

The Gallup/Lumina survey also uncovered an encouraging statistic about getting a job with an online degree. Poll results showed that 54 percent of employers and business leaders report that they're actually more likely to hire candidates with online degrees than those who went to traditional schools, all else being equal.

Why perceptions are changing

Some students may remember the media frenzy over massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that took hold of the national education consciousness in 2012. All the press coverage about MOOCs and how they were set to change the face of education helped spread awareness of online education among academics, employers, and the public alike.

Some well-regarded traditional universities were offering online degrees before the MOOC blitz, and even more got into the game afterward. With the growing number of respected institutions offering online degrees, the respectability of online degrees themselves continues to rise.

Employers gaining direct experience with hard-working online graduates doesn't hurt either. "Individuals with online degrees get tasks done faster," says Lambert, "and are less affected by distractions."

Overcoming workforce challenges

Improving perceptions aside, an online degree is no more of a ticket to an automatic job after graduation than a traditional degree. Here's a rundown of some of the common challenges that online degree holders might face when entering the workforce.

How do I display my degree on my resume?

There's no need to put an asterisk after the name of your alma mater if you earned your degree online. List the degree just as it appears on the certificate you received at graduation, and make sure to include any specific skills or knowledge areas studied in the same way you would if you'd attended brick-and-mortar classes.

How can I supplement my degree with "hands-on" work?

Some online degree programs at colleges and universities offer hybrid classes, wherein a portion of the coursework is completed at a nearby campus or another associated learning facility. Current or former online students can also seek out internships, either traditional or virtual, or apply for volunteer work at an agency in their chosen field.

How do I prove my degree is "real"?

Employers today understand that your degree is a "real" degree if it comes from an accredited institution. Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing an online school. If a school doesn't show up on the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, it might be what's known as a "diploma mill" and should be avoided.

Career services at online schools

A potential lack of career services may also warn some students off of online education, but those services are becoming more and more available every day. At many online schools, students can now access job portals, career coaching, resume assistance, job interview training, recruiter partnerships, and other related resources.

Penn Foster Career School is one example of an online institution that provides job services to its students and alumni. According to Penn Foster's website, nearly 80 percent of their graduates who found work in their field of study did so in three months or less.

The last word on getting a job with an online degree

This is perhaps the most important thing for online students to remember: if your online school is accredited and you dedicate yourself to your education, there's no reason employers won't be interested.

It's a point that HR Director Lambert went out of her way to stress: "Again, I strongly believe that it is not where or how you got your degree but what you did and do with it that matters most. What you took away from your learning experience and how you applied it to your career and skillset is what employers look for."

What is a virtual internship?

To see the supervisor at her last internship, Kendall Murtha had to go hang out on her Google+ account. It was either that or wait until their monthly dinner appointment.

It wasn't that Murtha's supervisor was AWOL or negligent. Instead, it was because Murtha is one of a new breed of virtual interns. Rather than head to an office or job site, virtual interns connect with employers either online, via Skype, or on the phone, and then complete their assigned duties on their own.

Online internships are an increasingly popular way for college students to conveniently gain professional experience. A 2013 report from Internships.com found 33 percent of employers had hired virtual interns, an increase of 20 percent from the year before. In addition, 71 percent of students said they would consider a virtual internship.

Murtha, a senior at Colgate University, says she has this advice for students considering virtual internships: "Absolutely take advantage of these opportunities."

Online internships connect students and businesses

Just as there are many different types of regular internships, there are also many varieties of online internships. For Murtha, her three virtual internships involved monitoring social media accounts, drafting correspondence, and conducting research. Other companies may bring on interns for tasks related to web development, sales, and public relations.

Of course, it isn't just interns who benefit from the opportunity to work virtually. Angela Hood, the founder and CEO of ThisWay Global, a startup being incubated at ideaSpace - University of Cambridge, says her company has benefited from having a larger pool of talent from which to pull interns.

"We want input from talented people from all over the world, and virtual internships allow us access to people we would not have been able to reach otherwise," she says.

Recent interns for ThisWay Global have done branding work and coordinated voiceovers, among other things.

Only self-starters need apply

However, having a virtual internship may not be for everyone. With no on-site accountability, individuals must have the self-discipline to stay on task and on schedule.

"Self-reliant students who are looking for opportunities to work independently and are comfortable communicating through email and phone calls should consider virtual internships," says Yair Riemer, Chief Marketing Officer with CareerArc Group, which includes Internships.com.

Hood adds that even self-reliant students need clear direction to be successful. Her company relies on Skype to communicate regularly with their virtual interns and establishes up front what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of product delivery. Ultimately, online internships do an excellent job of weeding out poor candidates quickly.

"This format lets you quickly determine which people are self-starters and self-motivated, and which people are not," explains Hood.

Murtha adds that regular communication is vital to a successful internship, "One of the best tips my old boss gave me was that status updates, even if you don't hear back, are always appreciated."

Where to find virtual internships

Internships.com has an extensive listing of virtual internships, which is where Murtha found all three of her online positions. However, opportunities can also be found on a number of other internship and job websites. Of these, InternMatch.com may be among the most prominent.

Students shouldn't get discouraged if there are limited opportunities for virtual internships in their particular field. The number of companies offering online internships for college students is increasing dramatically.

"Employers are now realizing the potential they have to work with students all across the country and are becoming more comfortable with the many ways that are available to communicate with them," says Riemer. "That, combined with the flexibility inherent for both students and employers, has led to a surge."

Questions to ask first

Since every virtual internship is different, it is critical students understand what is expected both of them and of the company before they start.

Riemer suggests students ask the following questions before signing up for an online internship:

  • Who is the point of contact?
  • What is the preferred method of communication?
  • Is the work schedule flexible or are interns expected to be working at specific times?
  • What type of work will be assigned?
  • Will feedback be provided and how will be that be conveyed?

"The more questions you ask and have answered up front, the better your internship experience will be," says Riemer.

When successful, a virtual internship is a win-win for employers and students alike. Businesses get access to fresh talent while students have the opportunity to gain professional experience for their resume. Riemer suggests a virtual internship can also be a great way for college seniors to extend their summer internship into the fall and keep in touch with potential future employers.

Murtha, with three virtual internships under her belt and plans to graduate next spring, undoubtedly hopes Riemer is right. But either way, the college senior says her experiences have been worth it.

"Every virtual internship I took on helped me gain skills relevant to my ideal career path," she notes, which may be why virtual internships should make the short list of experiences every college student should consider having before graduation.


Sources:
2014 Virtual Internships, InternMatch.com, https://www.internmatch.com/s/virtual-internships

Angela Hood, Founder/CEO of ThisWay Global, Interview with the author on July 30, 2014
Career Services, Penn Foster Career School, http://www.pennfoster.edu/career-school/career-services
"Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment," Employment Projections, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
Email interview, Dr. Patrick Jones, June 26, 2014
Email interview, Samantha Lambert, July 30, 2014
"Employer Perceptions of Online Degrees: A Literature Review," Online Journal of Distance Learning, Norina L. Columbaro and Catherine H. Monaghan, www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring121/columbaro121.html
"How Employers View Your Online Bachelor's Degree," U.S. News & World Report, Devon Haynie, March 4, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/02/28/what-employers-really-think-about-your-online-bachelors-degree
Internships Survey and 2013 Internship Trend, Internships.com, http://www.internships.com/eyeoftheintern/news/idc-news/internships-survey-2013-internship-trends/
Kendall Murtha, Interview with the author on July 30, 2014
"Today's business leaders say 'It's what you know, not where you go' when making hiring decisions, new study shows," Lumina Foundation, February 25, 2014, http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/news_releases/2014-02-25.html
Yair Riemer, Chief Marketing Officer, CareerArc Group, Interview with the author on July 30, 2014