Are Online Degrees Worth It? What Hiring Managers Think

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Even before COVID-19, online degree programs were growing increasingly popular. The ability to earn a college degree without being tied to a physical campus opened doors for many students with existing commitments, like families and jobs. Plus, online degree programs and other educational options, like short-term coding boot camps, are often — though not always — more affordable than their traditional counterparts.

But do people — especially hiring managers — actually consider online degrees equivalent to traditional degrees?

Are Online Degrees Taken Seriously?

According to a recent survey conducted by Student Loan Hero, Americans are pretty evenly split on the respectability of online education. About 45 percent of respondents said they believe candidates who’ve completed traditional, on-campus degree programs have a better shot at getting hired. Forty-seven percent said they think online and in-person educational options are equally weighted.

While those statistics weren’t derived from a targeted survey of hiring managers, other data suggests that education might not be the most critical factor on your resume. In a 2019 poll of 600 HR professionals, approximately 90 percent said they would be open to hiring a candidate without a four-year degree, provided the candidate had a relevant certification, digital badge, or history of completed coursework.

That said, a 2018 survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that three-quarters of hiring managers do think completing a full degree program is important. Hiring managers also expressed a belief that any degree program can help a person attain the skills they need to perform on the job.

Now that so many schools are offering both online and in-person courses, the person looking over your resume might not even know which type of program you attended, making the question of online vs. in-person degrees less pressing than it has been in the past.

Technology Bridges the Gap

Although online degree programs had been ramping up for more than a decade, COVID-19 did send digital education efforts into overdrive. Because so many universities were forced to adopt online learning in response to quarantine restrictions, they’ve now laid the foundation to add more online courses to their rosters. Many schools are also implementing blended learning opportunities, where students participate in both in-person and online studies.

Furthermore, as technology continues to evolve, the differences between online and in-person learning will become more and more subtle. Interactive video technology is already being used in many programs to increase student engagement with online material, and virtual reality may soon make hands-on learning possible from a distance.

Still, there will always be some important distinctions between the in-person education experience and a remote one. However, an argument can be made that it’s really the ability, not the education, that makes a candidate shine.

Check out the latest issue of Magazine for more career advice and recruiting trends:

Is an Online Degree Right for You?

The choice between online and traditional education, like so many others, comes down to a variety of personal considerations. Depending on your life situation, an online degree program may be the only viable option.

If you do choose to pursue an online degree — or any post-secondary degree, for that matter — it’s important to make sure you’re choosing an accredited program. This means a third-party agency has reviewed the program for certain quality standards. The US Department of Education offers a searchable database of accredited institutions and programs. The last thing you want to do is get sucked into an online degree scam.

Keep in mind, too, that “online” doesn’t necessarily mean “cheap.” According to US News and World Report, the average online bachelor’s degree costs between $38,496 and $60,593, so it’s likely you’ll still need to take out student loans to pay for it. You’ll also need to put a plan in place to pay off those student loans as quickly as possible once you graduate.

As far as getting hired is concerned, each situation — and hiring manager — is different. It’s certainly possible that some recruiters will see an online degree as less valuable than a traditional degree, though this stigma seems likely to fade as online education becomes more and more commonplace.

At the end of the day, an interviewer’s primary objective is to assess whether or not you’ve got the chops to do the job. That means your objective is to prove that you do, in fact, have them. Researching the company and role ahead of time can help you reflect on your specific skill set and how your unique abilities and experience can enrich the organization. If the topic of your online degree comes up, you might even be able to use it as a chance to demonstrate your time management skills. After all, studying from home means there were plenty of things competing for your attention.

As long as you have the right skills for the job you’re applying for and the work ethic to put them to good use, the matter of where you picked those skills up isn’t all that important.

Jamie Cattanach is a personal finance writer.

By Jamie Cattanach