How to market yourself with an online degree

An argument frequently pulled out during debates over the high cost of college is the fact that someone with a degree will, on average, earn $500,000 more over their lifetimes vs. someone who enters the workforce with just a high school diploma.

As powerful as this statistic might sound, though, keep in mind that this $500,000 is an average, meaning high earners (like those graduating from an Ivy League college and becoming corporate lawyers with seven- or eight-figure salaries) are balanced out by those who never fully earn back what they invested into obtaining a postsecondary degree.

That figure is also skewed by the fact that, today, more than twice as many people are enrolled in some college program (including two- and four-year programs at community, state, and private institutions, not to mention the millions who get a degree partially or entirely online) than 30-40 years ago. Which means that jobs which might have once gone to people with only a high school diploma now require a BA.

The massive expansion of ways to obtain a degree has also not eliminated the "hierarchy of familiarity" regarding where a student graduated. For instance, employers who know (or think they know) what they are getting when they hire someone with a diploma from an Ivy League college might scratch their heads over what it means when a job applicant comes to them with a online degree from an unfamiliar online school.

Given the millions who have not only landed their first job but built entire careers around what they learned through non-traditional higher education tracks, there are obviously ways to overcome employers' lack of knowledge or preconceptions regarding where (and how) you went to school. But these all require a bit of hustle.

Here are some tips for succeeding with an online degree:

Tell your story

A large percentage of those obtaining an online degree do not represent the 18-22 year old demographic normally associated with residential degree programs. Instead they might be older career changers, veterans, parents returning to the workforce after raising children, or others who have decided to earn a degree after having some other type of life experience (travel, volunteer work, taking care of aging parents, etc.).

All of these experiences represent compelling stories, and the fact that someone demonstrates the readiness to retool, the drive to earn a degree while shouldering other responsibilities, and the courage to enter the workforce through non-conventional means all say important things that potential employers should know about. So in your resume, your cover letters, your interviews, and any other communication you have with potential employers, you should be ready to tell your complete story, rather than just rely on a degree listed at the bottom of your resume to say all there is to say about your experience.

Portfolio-ize yourself

Experience can often trump where one went to school, which is why many students take low-paying internships while at college or right after they graduate. And in fields like design or computer programming, employers are much more interested in looking at samples of professional work vs. your college transcript.

So if you are looking to be a journalist, write something (ideally many things), get published, and include those published pieces on a personal website or blog that shows off your writing chops. If you're a designer, donate your time to non-profits that need logos or posters and use that material to build a handsome portfolio you can share with potentially paying clients or employers. And if you're a programmer -- program! Develop apps or other work products that show off your skill and share those (along with your other credentials) via a web page that highlights your talent. creativity and seriousness.

Get on the inside track

Because so much of the traditional job application process has become automated, it is very possible that an algorithm or intern might chuck out hundreds of applications (including yours) to create a short-list for decision-makers based on rigid criteria that won't screen in your story, your portfolio, or anything else that makes you unique.

Which is why you should be networking within those places where you'd like to work before any job openings become available. And by networking, I mean getting on the inside: interning, volunteering, creating something (like a logo or app) that might be useful to them without being asked, interviewing the CEO for your blog or podcast, etc.

All of these steps could lead to a job offer that does not require competing with hundreds of other candidates, some of whom might look better than you on paper. But in the rough-and-tumble game of hustling for a job, scissors (i.e., your talent cutting through the noise) cuts paper, and can provide the rock upon which to build your career.