The pandemic is leading more students to ask: Will employers take my online degree seriously? We have the answer.
What do employers really think about online degrees? Does it matter if they didn't come from traditional classroom settings? Will employers take them seriously?
With the onset of coronavirus and traditional schools moving online, these questions are more relevant than ever. Online colleges are becoming more popular, but prospective students may still worry about their credibility.
We're here to set the record straight: An online degree holds just as much weight as a traditional degree. In fact, data shows that most employers don't even differentiate between the two types of degrees.
In 2018, 15% of all college students in the United States studied exclusively online, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The most popular online programs? Business, healthcare, education, and computer/information science.
A big benefit of online learning is greater access to education. Other perks include studying from home, a flexible schedule, and work-life balance.
However, factors such as accreditation, program length, and degree level may influence what employers think. Whether you're a prospective or current student, the following advice should help reassure you of the value of an online degree.
Is Your Online Degree Serious?
How do you know if a school is up to snuff compared to other colleges and universities? That's where accreditation comes in.
Accrediting agencies evaluate the quality of education at colleges and universities to ensure they meet specific standards. Evaluation metrics include things like educational standards, graduation rates, and professional outcomes for students. Reputable accreditation agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Generally, regionally accredited colleges are more highly valued than nationally accredited colleges, which tend to be vocational schools or for-profit institutions. Only students at accredited schools can access federal financial aid.
During your research into online programs, look for a stamp of approval from a recognized accrediting agency — preferably a regional one. If an online degree comes from a regionally or nationally accredited school, employers will know that it is reputable.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Prospective online students should look for a stamp of approval from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
- Higher Learning Commission
- New England Commission of Higher Education
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- WASC Senior College and University Commission
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
Red Flags That Your Employer (and You) Should Avoid
While employers are open to online degrees, they have historically been wary of diploma mills and seedy institutions, which often operate online.
Diploma mills give legitimate and transparent online colleges a bad reputation. These for-profit institutions essentially sell fake degrees that cost students thousands of dollars without offering professional benefits.
There are plenty of red flags that indicate when a school is selling you a worthless diploma that isn’t accredited by a recognized agency.
Which Professions Are Best Suited for Online Degrees?
The most accessible online degrees deliver coursework asynchronously and have no on-campus or in-person requirements. These factors provide maximum flexibility for distance learners. However, some areas of study don't adapt well to this format.
You should choose an online degree that fits your intended career path, and some educational trajectories just don't work as well online. For example, you can earn an associate degree in psychology without ever leaving your home, but you'll need to complete an in-person graduate program if you plan to practice at the clinical level.
On the flip side, online accounting programs are widely accessible for students regardless of their location or professional obligations. Because the career is largely theoretical, students can gain relevant experience without having to participate in labs, practicums, or in-person clinical practice. Accountants have many potential career options depending on their degree level, including auditing clerk, loan officer, and financial advisor.
Other degrees that adapt well to an online format include medical assisting, computer science, and healthcare administration.
What Level of Degree Have You Earned?
Many employers care more about your level of degree than whether you obtained it online or through traditional programs. Before you hit the job market, you should know precisely how far your degree level can take you. Deciding which to pursue — an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree — depends on your career goals.
Degree level is often directly tied to your potential for advancement or earnings. In many fields, a two-year associate degree limits you to entry-level and assistive roles with little opportunity for upward mobility. Even if you earned it from a traditional school, a two-year program limits your opportunities.
However, enrolling in an online degree-completion program increases your career prospects. If a bachelor's degree is required for your chosen field, you should find an accredited online college that offers a four-year program. Online master's programs are equally valuable.
A two-year program could limit your opportunities, whether it was online or not. The higher your degree, even if you earned it online, the better your career prospects.
What Else Makes You Stand Out?
No matter where your degree came from, your experiences and skills are what really matter to employers. They care about the projects you worked on in school, the times you applied your skills, and personal connections you made.
An online degree from a reputable institution proves the validity of your education. Now it’s time to present yourself as an ideal candidate.
Put thought and effort into each cover letter, prepare well for interviews, and find ways to highlight your unique skills and passions — both academic and personal. Your resume, interview skills, and personal presentation matter just as much as a diploma.
The Final Word
Do online degrees get the same level of respect as traditional degrees? Yes, but do your homework.
As long as you attend a regionally or nationally accredited institution, consider the factors that employers care about, and put effort into expanding your experience, you should have no problem finding the right career path with your online degree
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
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