Are online degrees worth it?

Computer mouse wrapped around diploma
Are online degrees worth it? The answer to that question is more complex than it may seem.
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The world of online learning has entered the mainstream in recent years. Around 80 percent of colleges and universities now offer at least some online classes, and students are pursuing two-year, four-year and advanced degrees online in larger numbers than ever before [source: Online Learning Consortium]. Even though the numbers of students pursuing online education have increased, are those diplomas and certificates worth the paper they're printed on?

The answer to that question is more complex than it may seem. There are lots of different ways to judge the relative worth of an education. The pursuit of knowledge for its own intrinsic value is a time-honored notion. In today's tight job market, expecting to spend hundreds if not thousands of hours in scholarly pursuits may seem unrealistic, though. Students pursuing degrees online tend to be more focused on their careers than on scholarship for its own sake. With that goal in mind, there are ways to assess a degree's relative value.


One way is accreditation. Typically, the best online and brick-and-mortar schools are accredited. Accreditation is a complex process, but the agencies involved are generally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. For a degree to have "career" value and be eligible for other special consideration, like approval for student financial aid or employer reimbursement, accreditation is an important factor [source: U.S. Department of Education].

Industry bias is another valuable assessment tool. Some industries are more resistant to online degrees than others. The best way to determine if a bias exists is to research the attitudes of educators and employers in that field. Even if there is some resistance today, that may change in the future. Studies suggest biases against online degrees are still evident but less pronounced than they were even a few years ago [source: Rechlin]. With the participation in online learning of such prestigious schools as Harvard and MIT through massive open online courses (MOOCs), attitudes about the authenticity of online diplomas are improving [source: Webley].

Also, recognize the general perception of online degrees, which might provide an excellent education but still be considered slightly inferior. Today, employers tend to have a higher level of comfort with degrees obtained through schools that have a physical campus but offer an online curriculum. Schools recognized in a specific field, or with ties to a region or community, are also viewed more favorably.

Although some biases against online degrees do exist, times are changing. The day may come when a majority of postsecondary degrees are offered as online options, perhaps with some coursework like labs and administrative functions required on a campus or other regional facility. Until then, it pays to view potential online schools objectively and demand cold, hard data like graduate placement statistics and dropout rates.


Lots More Information

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  • Allen, I. and Jeff Seaman. "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011." Online Learning Consortium. November 2011. (Oct. 15, 2014)
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