Is an online degree worth it?
On average, in 2008, a high school graduate earned an annual salary of $31,283, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Add a degree to the mix and that number just keeps growing:
- Associate degree, $39,506
- Bachelor's degree, $58,613
- Master's degree, $70,856
- Doctoral degree: $99,697
- Professional degree: $125,019
But the Census Bureau doesn't ask where anyone earned their degree--or if they earned it online.
Online education: getting more popular every day
One million more students took an online course in fall 2009 than in fall 2008, the Sloan Consortium reports. In "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010," the Sloan Consortium found that 75 percent of all educational institutions surveyed reported that the recent recession increased the demand for online classes and degree programs. Learning via the Internet may be popular and convenient, but is an online degree worth it?
The Department of Education (DOE) thinks so.
"President Obama set a goal to have America lead the world in the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020," said DOE Press Officer Sara Gast. "Certainly an online degree is a big part of that picture. We imagine for-profit colleges will be a big part of that picture in getting students the degrees and certificates they need to be successful. We absolutely encourage more education in all of its forms."
Andrea Cook, online academic advisor at Ottawa University, thinks online degrees are worth it, too.
Cook said that the choice between an online degree and a campus-based one should be determined by the student's situation and priorities: "I think an online school could be right for just about anybody. It really depends on that student's situation. There are many adult students right now who have 60 credits and are so close to being done; they don't have a lot of time to finish school. Those are the students who benefit perfectly from a full online degree program."
How to determine the quality of an online degree program
A quick degree doesn't necessarily mean the school is a "diploma mill," though anyone considering an online degree needs to be aware that these bogus programs exist. Diploma mills are fraudulent schools that offer degrees and diplomas in exchange for a fee, providing very little education and giving students an essentially useless degree. Accreditation from an independent association recognized by the Department of Education can help students determine which schools' reputations have been vetted.
"Employers want to know if the school you attended is accredited, not necessarily if it's online or traditional, but is it accredited," Cook said. "Students should maybe look at some traditional campuses in their area and find out what those schools' accreditation is. Then when they search for online schools, those local schools can set the expectations for accreditation."
In addition to accreditation, Gast recommends that students look at statistics such as graduation rates, class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios, available through the Department of Education's College Navigator website to help determine an online program's quality.
Gast also advises students ask potential schools about their job placement rates and starting salaries of graduates. Starting in the summer of 2012, vocational schools will be required to report job placement data to the Department of Education. While this data is not currently available via College Navigator, other statistics, such as retention rate and graduation rate, can help students determine if an online degree program is reputable.
Both Gast and Cook suggest students find alums from potential online schools who are willing to dish about their experience. Social networking sites are ripe with comments, both positive and negative, explained Cook: "The student is really the one who knows and had the experience with the school. You can look at all the facts and figures you want, but the students are the ones who have the knowledge and the experience. Generally, they are going to voice that concern on Facebook, YouTube or a blog. If there is a lot of negative, then students may want to avoid that school."
Additionally, students shouldn't discount talking to the school representative and asking some tough questions about the qualification and training of professors, career services for students and what types of jobs graduates are getting.
What do employers think of online degrees?
No matter what admissions representatives say or education statistics show, neither schools nor the Department of Ed are in charge of the hiring that leads to that fat paycheck. So what do employers think of online degrees?
A 2009 article in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration reviewed a range of studies on employer perceptions of online degrees that were published between 2001 and 2008. The article reported that many studies found employers had concerns about online degrees. Specifically, they were skeptical of the accreditation of online schools, the perceived quality of online degree programs and the work experience of graduates of online degree programs.
But the article also suggested that not all employers share these concerns. For example, within higher education, one study found that community colleges were more accepting of online degree holders than four-year institutions. Likewise, a 2002 study found that seven out of eight pharmaceutical companies reported no bias against online degrees while a 2007 study found 95 percent of health care employers preferred traditional degrees.
Given this variation, students evaluating online degree programs would be wise to speak with potential employers in their area or industry. Doing so will allow potential students to find out how employers view online degrees in general, as well as those from particular schools.
When discussing an online degree with an employer, graduates should focus on their skills and accomplishments, including tangible examples of industry experience or professional competencies. "The student needs to understand that when they are speaking to an employer that the degree is an asset to them but not an end-all," said Cook, who recommends that online students take advantage of schools' career services and online student organization opportunities to make themselves more marketable.
As online education gains traction, employers may become more accepting of different types of degrees. In fact, the Sloan Consortium study mentioned above found evidence that the reputation of online degrees was growing among academic leaders--57 percent rated online learning outcomes as equal to or better than those in traditional classrooms in 2003 and that number grew to 66 percent in 2010. As the quality of online education becomes established within academia, its reputation in the workplace is likely to improve as well.