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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:

Number of Online Degrees

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):

Student Loan Repayment Rates

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.

Author Bio

Total Articles: 1080
Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Article comments

Ravi Gupta says:

The only benefit I could see of attending class is hearing different ideas and side track comments during a lecture. For example my accounting professor went into more detail of what accounting in the real world was like. Had I taken the class online I would never have any of these things.
If I had the option of doing all of my classes online I would take it in a heart beat. It would allow me to go to school and work at the same time.

-Ravi Gupta

Kris says:

I’ve taught online classes for years, and here are two things to consider. First, is the college regionally accredited? There is no national accreditation that is worth anything (schools like Yale, Harvard, Penn State, etc are all regionally accredited). Second, are you really prepared to be an online student? Online classes are NOT easier, and while they are flexible they do require a student to be self disciplined and manage their time well.

Amy Saves says:

I’m all for online degrees. If you can get the same knowledge without leaving your home and save gas, why not? I think people are too hung up on the way you get an education. It’s not about how you got it, but what you actually learned.

jim says:

I think it really depends on the school.

An online degree form Stanford or Harvard would be great as far as I’m concerned. Any degree from Devry or Phoenix… not so much.

Going to college online is terrible. I’ve taken one class and it was miserable. Going to class and listening to a professor is a much better way to learn. Another point is that an online college diploma is not even comparable to a sit-down university diploma, it just isn’t. I guess one could debate that on a person by person basis, but in real life, the majority of employers look down upon these types of educations…

Ryan says:

You are just speaking from your experience with online classes, which appears to be very shortsighted on your part. There are many who enjoy the flexiblility of online classes, but they do require a great deal of discipline. So if disipline is an issue then you are obviously not suited for online and possibly other courses. I can give you several examples from my career where employees have aquired their degrees the non traditional way and have done well for themselves and our company. I work for a large aerospace company and have seen countless examples of this over the years. Now this typically is only true for the non technical degrees. When you start talking Engineering, Physics, and other such degrees I do not beleive the online experience is valued. That being said it takes several technical and non technical degreed professionals to run a company or organization effectively. I personally love interviewing/hiring non traditional students, they typically had to raise a family while showing the increased discipline of attending school while dealing with all of the other issues of raising children, etc. They typically are much better with time management, follow through, and more passionate than the traditional grad.

I think it all depends on the individual! I know several people who are going back to school after getting married and having children that are earning their degrees online on their own time and working at the same time. This post was very interesting! I hope the stigma that comes with an online degree disappears soon.