If you’ve earned or are earning an online degree, chances are you’ve had this thought: What will happen when I’m applying for a job? Should I tell them I went to school online? Maybe you’re considering distance learning but want to be sure you’re choosing a legitimate program. Learn how to separate credible online learning programs from disreputable ones and how to let the world know your degree is legitimate and demonstrates your promise as a qualified employee.
Bob Rubinyi serves as the Senior Analyst for Online Learning in the Center for Educational Innovation. Bob currently chairs the U of M Online Steering Committee, oversees the University’s Coursera MOOC partnership, serves on the Minnesota Learning Commons Steering Committee, and represents the University on state and national inter-institutional eLearning partnerships.
Cost savings is an obvious benefit of earning an online degree, but for many people the choice to go to school online is motivated by more personal reasons: working full-time, caring for a family member, or perhaps having a disability that makes classroom learning challenging. An employer's job is to make smart decisions about who will optimize the company's success. They want to see dedication and ingenuity. You need to demonstrate that your decision to enroll in an online degree program was not to avoid hard work, but, rather, a responsible decision that allowed you to take care of your obligations without sacrificing your dreams.
In pursuing an online degree, there are factors within your control than can help persuade even picky future employers and HR departments not to put you on the "no" pile. The simplest way to reassure employers that your degree was not earned in a "diploma mill," a term used for online schools willing to dole out any number of degrees without merit in exchange for money, is to choose a college or university with a known and respected reputation. Consider universities with longstanding residential campuses that also now offer online courses or degrees.
Consider what you want to study. If you're choosing an online school for a bachelor’s degree and know you want to study computer science, choose a school known for excellence in technology fields. The same goes for higher-level degrees: if you’re a prospective doctoral candidate in education, choose a university with a strong education school. You can underscore to a future employer that you wanted to benefit from the excellence of the institution in your area of study.
Here are the key questions to ask in evaluating the credibility of an online school:
The federal government, via the Department of Education, approves certain agencies, empowering them to create and enforce accreditation standards for colleges. It’s the not a matter of the federal government coming and inspecting a particular institution for high quality education or health services or safe food, it’s typically a regional accrediting agency.
There’s also CHEA (the Council for Higher Education Accreditation), which is not a government body, but is reviewed by the Department of Education regularly and which also protects students, ensuring that they receive quality education from an institution CHEA grants accreditation to. If a particular college is not recognized via an agency via the Department of Education, but is recognized through CHEA, that may be for a variety of reasons, but none of them sinister. Here is the complete list of agencies recognized by either the Department of Education, CHEA, or both.
The name of an accrediting agency should appear on a school’s website. If you can’t find it on the website, call the school and ask if they are accredited and for the name of the accrediting body. Investigate the name of the accrediting body to verify—some institutions trying to scam students will simply invent a name that sounds credible.
"Graduation rate" refers to the percentage of first-time college students who complete a bachelor’s degree within six continuous years. While no school has a perfect record, a very low graduation rate suggests that an institution is not doing its job of moving students through a program and out into the working world. The average grad rate for a for-profit school is 23 percent. Here are some data points about graduation rates for all types of colleges.
If you're considering taking out loans to pay for your online education, make sure you've researched the loan default rates for the schools you're considering. This measure will help you understand what percentage of students enrolled in a school are not able to pay back their debt, and while this might be for a variety of reasons, a rate much higher than the national average may indicate that the school charges too much money and is not a good return on investment. Check out the federal database regarding default rates.
To help in your search for online programs, we’ve compiled a list of public and private not-for-profit schools with at least 50 percent of their students enrolled in distance education. Here you can compare graduation rates and also see plenty of respected institutions offering online education. This is not an exhaustive list. If there’s a particular school you’re interested in, contact the school directly to learn more about their online offerings and graduation statistics.
Sources: NCES, CollegeResults.org
Now that you know what signals a credible online degree program, but what kind of institution raise red flags? Consult this list to make sure none of the following questionable or downright illegal recruitment and marketing tactics apply.
If this is the case, chances are the "admissions office" is not really an admissions office.
Don’t be fooled by someone persuading you that there is no street address because the school is online. Even some all-online schools have limited campuses, or at the very least an administrative building.
Especially if you fill out a lead form expressing interest, some schools will reach out with an email or even a phone call, or ask to send you an information packet about the school. But a school that calls you so much it borders on stalking? Forget it.
Traditionally, students pay for a semester at a time, or a year’s tuition in chunks. College is expensive, and administrators know that—In order to retain students, they try to accommodate individuals and families. Don’t be bowled over by a scam artist who tells you that "college is just expensive."
Everyone knows Harvard University. If a school’s name is “Harvarden University,” question why they chose that name. If they’re trying too hard to sound legitimate, they’re probably not.
A legitimate online school should be accredited. But if the school’s website lists a whole bunch of different agencies, this could be another sign of overcompensating. In every case, look up the exact agency’s name that’s listed and the institution itself in the Department of Education database.
No matter how desperate you are to earn a degree, don’t be sucked in by the false promise of graduating in a short amount of time from a legitimate program.
Real schools, online included, have student services. There should be more than just nominal listings of professors and staff.
Committing to a degree program is a big investment. Legitimate schools tell prospective student what classes and credits earn particular degrees.
There are above-board international online schools, of course, but these should also be accredited (and they can be accredited by CHEA, anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth). Some small countries may have no accrediting bodies, so unaccredited operations out of these countries who recruit heavily in the U.S. can’t be verified as legitimate.
Just because a class is online, doesn’t mean it’s a free for all. Above board online programs have qualified professors who teach remotely and expect a certain level of attendance and engagement from their students, just like in a traditional classroom.
While some universities and colleges simply offer online courses, others are 100 percent online. If you are in position to choose between a wholly online school and a traditional school with online offerings, here’s a table that allows you to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of each choice:
|Lowest Cost||Most Flexibility||Most Employer Friendly||Best Social|
|Online Only||Yes. 100 percent virtual schools tend to be more affordable than any other type of education.||Depends. Online courses still require attendance, but if flexibility simply means being able to be at home, then yes, this is likely the most flexible option.||Some employers have evolved with the times and may not question or even take note of an online degree. But the fact is, a few bad apples have tainted the reputation of totally virtual schools so there is skepticism.||Depends. We live a such a virtual culture that community building takes place online all the time. Of course, some schools do this better than others. Ask the Admissions Office of your potential school and see what they offer in the way of peer community.|
|Blended||If you take a mix of online and traditional classroom courses, the cost of tuition will likely be higher than at a totally online school, unless you get a sizeable amount of federal aid.||Depends. If your blended university is far from your home, then being able to take online courses there signifies a huge amount of flexibility.||Yes. Much of the research is anecdotal, but employers will likely be more comfortable with a known entity than a totally virtual school.||Depends. The college social experience is what you make of it. As an online student, if physical community such as student groups and alumni events are important to you, then choosing a local brick-and-mortar school may be best.|
Online college is a popular and sometimes taboo subject. But don’t be swayed by what your friend heard on the news, or what one person’s awesome experience was—learn the facts, and make an objective decision. Let’s bust a few myths about online learning off the bat:
Not true. According to the National Council of Education Statistics, 14 percent of students earning an associate’s level degree or higher take all distance learning courses.
Online courses are no easier than traditional courses. Unless the online program is a scam and you’re pay for a degree, get ready to show up and focus, just like anywhere else!
False. There are online graduate programs in just about every area imaginable: you can even earn a PhD online.
On the contrary, a lot of people think the future of education lies in online learning. In data from the National Center for Education Statistics, year over year data from 2013 to 2014 shows that total enrollment in at least one online course went up four percent. Put it this way: when a company’s profits go up that much year over year, it’s a success.
Bob Rubinyi Center for Educational Innovation, Senior Analyst for Online Learning
What we have found is that despite the fact that we have close to 50 online programs, as it turns out the majority of our enrollments are actually from individual students who are otherwise residential students taking individual online courses… [For] a lot of institutions such as ours…the majority are students who are in residential programs at the University.
Public and nonprofit higher education institutions are significantly increasing their engagement in the online area. Arizona State and other publics and privates are increasingly involved with developing more online programs.
The reputation of the institution is extremely important. In the first phase, we saw a lot of the for-profits…not that for profits are bad, but the biggest thing students look for is the reputation of the institution, and now [students] are looking towards traditional institutions. [Reputation is] certainly something employers are looking for.
High quality faculty. I like it when a lot of the same faculty teaching on the ground are also teaching online. A curriculum that fits together is important as far as how the courses are scaffolded…[When] courses are not just a loose collection but there’s really a systemic structure to them. The other thing would be successful graduates [who] get placed in positions that they were seeking the particular education program for.
Yes. Certainly the individual universities have a lot of brand recognition and students certainly respond to that…In my conversations with students, they’ve indicated that they had heard about the University and that was a big reason why they wanted to look at our university first or other universities that they were familiar with.
Especially when we’re talking about adult learners, I tell them to make sure to go to potential employers for positions they might be looking for and ask them, what type of educational experience are you looking at? What type of schools do you respect? What type of degree or credential?