There’s a saying in law that an oral contract is not worth the paper it’s printed on. In the same vein, I’ve been wondering just how valuable an online degree is.
The question came up because my brother is currently taking classes with Liberty University’s online program. He’s very happy with the classes and technology, but I still have questions about the value of an online degree. So I started doing some research into the question. From this two different but equally important issues surfaced.
First, do online colleges and universities do a good job teaching? In other words, once you get your degree, do you know the subject as well or perhaps better than a student attending a traditional school setting. Second, and equally important, how do employers and graduate programs view an online educational? Are your credentials from an online school just as impressive as a resident institutions? Or put differently, are your chances of landing a job just as good as another candidate who attended live classes?
Before we answer these questions, let’s be clear about one thing–online learning is a booming business. The number of students taking some form of distance learning is significant. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, 4,277,000 students in 2007-08 (most recent data available) took some form of distance learning. And 769,000 students were taking their entire program through distance learning. And USA Today recently published an article on the growth of online learning, which including the following chart:
As you can see, the number of online degrees has grown significantly over the past decade. And with the increased accessibility of computers and the internet, online degrees will no doubt continue to grow.
According to the Hechinger Report, the top six institutions awarding teaching degrees are entirely or partly online private institutions. The University of Phoenix and Walden University combined awarded more than 14,600 education degrees in 2010. Nationally, 309,685 education degrees were awarded that year.
At the same time, there is serious doubt about the value of an online diploma. While not definitive, one data point is the student loan repayment rate of online schools versus traditional universities. The theory goes that if you can get a good job, you are more likely to repay your school loans. If you can’t land a job, you’ll be less likely to repay your debt. And using this data point to assess the quality of colleges does not bode well for online universities, as reflected in this chart (source: Hechinger Report):
Although it is interesting that Harvard grads are having the same trouble paying school loans as those finishing from the University of Phoenix.
So know on to our two questions
Do online schools provide a good education?
The answer to this question varies depending on whom you ask. On the one hand, many believe that the classroom setting is invaluable to the education experience. At the same time, at least one study found that “[o]n average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
Further, online colleges and specific degree programs are accredited. You can search accreditation data by school and program on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. While accreditation doesn’t guarantee a good education, it does mean that an institution or program has met certain minimum standards.
How do employers view online degrees?
Perhaps the bigger question, however, is how employers view an online degree. The results are mixed. At least one U.S. News report showed that employers valued online degrees. And according to a CNN report, a study by Excelsior College and Zogby International found that 83 percent of executives in the survey say that an online degree is as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program.” Yet at least one study found that online degrees are viewed by many as second best.