Can an Online Degree Really Help You Get a Job?

Online degree programs' reputations have taken a beating, thanks to unscrupulous diploma mills and a lack of respect from HR pros. That perception may finally be changing, but it still pays to be careful.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Phil Ashley / Getty Images

The University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit school in the country, has been around since 1976. It has 328,000 students currently enrolled and an estimated 700,000 alumni. It offers more than 100 degree programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. As of 2010 it had more than 8,000 recruiters on staff. But until very recently it had no career-counseling service for its graduating students.

That’s finally changed with the school’s new “Let’s Get to Work” initiative announced late last month: a series of online tools designed to help students figure out early on what jobs might be good for them, what employers in those fields are looking for and what skills students need to get the job. The school says it’s been working on this program for a couple of years now, but it’s probably no coincidence that it was excoriated this summer in a Senate report for doing little to help place its graduates in jobs after school. (The school is facing other problems as well: following a 60% fourth-quarter loss in net income for its parent company Apollo Group Inc., Phoenix announced Oct. 17 that it would close 115 locations — a decision that will affect some 13,000 students.) But with the national unemployment rate hovering near 8%, getting a job is exactly why many adults pursue a degree, online or otherwise. The question is: Can an online degree help you land a job at all?

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Who Is Taking Massive Open Online Courses, and Why?)

An increasing number of students are hoping that the answer is yes. The growth in online education over the past decade has been nothing short of meteoric: a November 2011 report by the Babson Survey Research Group found that more than 6.1 million students took at least one online class during the fall of 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year and nearly four times the number of students taking online courses a decade ago. While some of these students are enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar schools that also offer certain courses online, many others take online courses through institutions like the University of Phoenix and ITT Technical Institute, which offer a majority of their degree programs over the Internet. Still, concerns persist over the quality of online education and the usefulness of an online degree in getting a job — although for many it is the fact that most online universities are run as for-profit entities that is the root of the issue, rather than the medium in which they teach. (One particularly damning study from the National Bureau of Economic Research posited that some for-profits were nothing more than “agile predators,” targeting low-income and disadvantaged students in order to line their pockets with government money.)

Still, perceptions of online-only degrees are slowly shifting. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers’ views of online education have improved over the past five to 10 years. More than half of human-resources managers SHRM surveyed for an August 2010 report said that if two applicants with the same level of experience were applying for a job, it would not make a difference whether the job candidate’s degree was obtained through an online program or a bricks-and-mortar university. Seventy-nine percent said they had hired an applicant with an online degree during the previous 12 months. But 66% said candidates who obtained degrees online were not viewed as favorably as job applicants with traditional degrees. “HR managers are normally pretty conservative and a little bit cautious,” said Margaret Fiester, SHRM’s operations manager for the HR Knowledge Center. “It boils down to how familiar they are [with online education]. If it’s something they haven’t encountered before — if they’re not comfortable — they won’t even give it a second glance. A lot of decisions are made based on name recognition and reputation.”

(MORE: Why the Online-Education Craze Will Leave Many Students Behind)

The newest players in the online-education space have no problem with name recognition. Unlike the University of Phoenix, the prestigious universities behind Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs — Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Princeton among them — have ironclad academic reputations. In fact, Coursera, edX and Udacity, the three largest MOOC providers, have heard from companies who have expressed interest in hiring students who perform well in their courses.

But MOOC schools have a different problem: they don’t offer degree programs for their students, merely a certificate of completion. For many recruiters, that’s simply not enough. And like the traditional online schools, they still have a lot of work to do in order to convince employers that the courses they offer online are of the same quality and rigor as those taught in classrooms. “Employers use degrees as a sifting device. For many jobs, if you don’t have a degree, you’re not going to be considered,” says Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for online higher education at Eduventures, a higher-ed research and consulting firm. “If we start introducing, ‘Well, I don’t have a degree, but I took this MOOC thing, or a few courses here or there,’ that complicates the lives of HR managers. The MOOC currency isn’t yet clear enough that it will compete with the degree currency.”

The MOOCs might be able to learn from schools that are trying a different approach: figuring out what skills employers are looking for and helping put their students in that sweet spot. The private, not-for-profit Western Governors University (WGU) has offered online degrees in business, technology, teacher education and health care since 1997. “Ninety-nine and a half percent of employers have never heard of us,” says WGU president Bob Mendenhall. To get around that, WGU administrators allow employers to consult on curriculum development and other aspects of the program; in return, WGU graduates are frequently hired by many of those companies. John Steele, senior vice president of human resources at HCA Healthcare, which operates hundreds of hospitals nationwide, likes having a say in what students learn so he can be sure the employees he hires will have the skills his company needs. HCA Healthcare has taken on hundreds of WGU nursing graduates over the years. “There’s no question that having an input in the curriculum makes a difference,” Steele says — although he adds that he likes WGU’s program because, though mostly online, it also features in-person labs where students get the hands-on experience required in the nursing field. “At some point you have to learn how to touch the patient. You can’t do that online,” he says.

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?)

The logistics and delivery giant UPS is taking that process a step further, teaming up with various online and brick-and-mortar schools to design programs that will create ideal candidates for their company. For the past two years they have worked with Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., on a program to train package handlers — an entry-level position — to become apprentice mechanics. The company has also worked with Morton Community College in Chicago to develop a curriculum for supply-chain management classes and with Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey on an operations-management certificate program. Some of these programs are online, some are taught in real-world classrooms, and some are a mixture of both. “We recognize that generations have different learning preferences and styles,” said Anne Schwartz, vice president of global leadership and talent development at UPS. “It’s difficult for us to tell a 20- or 30-something that they have to have a degree from a brick-and-mortar college. As a result, we encourage all types of education, including online.”

The University of Phoenix is catching on. In the past year the company began developing certification programs in retail management and hotel-revenue management to fill a need mentioned by employers. “We try to understand where the need is and then drive that into our curriculum so that students emerge ready to be hired,” says Barry Feierstein, the school’s chief business operating officer. The school has announced partnerships with companies like MGM, which is collaborating on the development of the hotel certificate, and American Medical Response, which helped the school develop its concentration in emergency care (which is now part of the School of Allied Health). It also has informal relationships with companies like Walmart, which is not involved in curriculum development but does work with the school to meet its talent needs in retail management. “That’s a win-win for everyone,” Feierstein said. “Walmart gets a good hire, and we get to help our students secure jobs while they are still in school.”

So the answer to whether an online degree can help you get a job appears to be yes — sometimes. TIME asked human-resources executives at several Fortune 500 companies whether an online course would be viewed as a credible credential in a prospective employee, and not all of them agreed. One executive was concerned about how students were graded and assessed, while another worried about the reputation of online universities and believed that online classes were generally not as challenging as traditional college courses. These are the challenges that MOOCs, for-profits and corporate-academic partnerships still need to surmount. As Western Governors’ Mendenhall says, “At the end of the day, maybe the biggest contribution of the MOOCs will be adding credibility to online education.” At least he hopes so. The industry could use it.

MORE: Is Online Teacher Training Good for Public Education?