While online degrees were once largely seen as being second-rate, recent studies have reported that employers are not only more open to, but are even showing a favorable sentiment toward candidates with online degrees these days.
One such study, conducted by Excelsior College/Zogby International, found that 61 percent of CEOs and small-business owners were familiar with online degree programs -- and 83 percent of those considered online degrees equivalent to those earned in a traditional classroom.
Besides the increase in reputation these programs are experiencing, online degrees have also become so popular, that if employers were to disregard candidates with such degrees, they'd also be disqualifying a significant portion of the work force.
A recent study conducted by education marketing firm EducationDynamics shows that, since 1999, enrollment in online degree programs has increased nearly 1,000 percent; and, according to another study by Babson Survey Research Group, at least 4.6 million students in the United States were taking at least one online class during the fall 2008 term, the most recent period from which data is available.
While online education has clearly come a long way in terms of both quality and reputation, some programs are still miles ahead of others when it comes to quality and -- like with graduates of traditional universities -- employers often take quality of education into account when making a hiring decision.
Unfortunately, the relative youth of online education can make it hard to distinguish a quality program from a degree mill; online universities are not yet included in the highly-regarded ranking systems like those produced by US News and World Report, the Princeton Review or Barron's, and many online schools don't have long-standing reputations that precede them. Though you won't find an excess of third-party evaluations to help you choose a quality degree program, doing a little research on your own can help you find a school that will stand up to both your educational standards and an employer's interview process.
Here are a few things you must know about choosing an online university:
Accreditation means that a school has met a baseline educational standard, so if a school you're considering isn't accredited, it's time to reconsider. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a searchable online database of accredited schools in the United States. Before enrolling, be sure to check that your school is on that list.
While most online universities will be accredited by some sort of agency, not all accreditations are created equal. Schools will be accredited by either a regional or national agency, and there is a difference between the certifications.
If you're thinking about continuing your schooling in the future at a traditional college, for example, then it's best to choose a regionally accredited school, since most traditional universities are regionally accredited and only accept transfer credits and recognize degrees from other regionally accredited schools.
Regional accreditation agencies are broken down by geographic region. They are:
- Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
There are plenty of regionally accredited online schools to choose from though, so finding one shouldn't be too difficult. The University of Phoenix, Devry University and Kaplan University are all accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, for example (the same regional agency responsible for accrediting universities like Arizona State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue).
If you're applying to a technical, theological or vocational school, on the other hand, then it's better to look for a nationally accredited program, since these agencies often specialize in a type of school (i.e. the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology) rather than a geographic area.
Since online degree programs aren't typically included in published college rankings, you'll have to look elsewhere for a third-party opinion of online schools. Some websites, like Online Education Database, have begun to rank schools based on things like acceptance rate, graduation rate, scholarly citations and student-faculty ratio.
Additionally, the website CollegeChoicesForAdults.org lets you and compare and contrast 17 of the most popular online colleges, based on criteria including student demographics, student engagement and alumni outcomes.
Take your career path into account
If your goal in life is to become a doctor, for example, and you want to start your schooling at an online university, you may run into problems down the line. Most medical schools require students take a certain amount of lab-based courses -- which can't be done online, for obvious reasons.
The same goes for other "hands-on" career paths. While online learning may be a great way to get basic courses under your belt, you may want to transfer to a traditional university when it comes time for the technical stuff.
Pay attention to red flags
Many online universities are for-profit -- and while that doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the education provided, it's still important to make sure that profit isn't all a school is after before you enroll. According to the Better Business Bureau, warning signs that your online university may actually be a degree mill include:
- The school charges by program, not by course or credit hour.
- There is no physical address, or a P.O. Box is given as the mailing address. Even online universities need physical addresses, where the "back-end" operations are headquartered.
- More emphasis is placed on earning credits through "real-world" learning than on classroom time.
- The length of the degree program is significantly shorter than equivalent programs at other universities.
By applying the tips above to your online-degree research, you'll be able to make an intelligent decision about your education.
Sources: ELearners.com, U.S. Department of Education, The Higher Learning Commission