Should Recruiters Take Online Degrees Seriously?

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female graduate working with laptopAs a result of increasing economic hardship, growing technological empowerment, dynamic lifestyles and the increasing emphasis on knowledge accreditation and credentials, we have seen a surge in demand and provision of online university degrees. Many students see online degrees as a practical and more affordable way to get a degree, and hence employers will increasingly be seeing graduates coming through with accreditation from online institutions or online faculties within traditional classroom-based learning institutions.

This presents a new issue for employers; as with anything new, there can be fear and uncertainty, and online degrees have certainly suffered from a perception issue. Studies show that many employers frown on online degrees as there are concerns they lack rigor and face-to-face interactions and that there is more scope for academic dishonesty. Online degrees also have an unenviable association with diploma mills, i.e. disreputable institutions that provide fake degrees.

So ,with the subject of online degrees now banging at the doors of recruiters, it’s time to ask the question, “Should employers take online degrees seriously?” Here’s my view:

One of the first big issues to address is whether the quality of online degrees matches that of traditional degrees. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Education, which looked at 99 research studies between 1996 and 2008, classes with online learning, (whether totally online or blended), on average produced stronger learning outcomes than classes with just face-to-face instruction. So, according to academic research, online degrees are, at the very least, as effective a teaching tool as classroom-led learning and arguably more effective.

So now we know that online degrees are good quality, how can we be sure that the degree that we are looking at is of good quality and not from a diploma mill giving out fake degrees? This is a very easy one to resolve. The U.S. Government has tackled the issue of diploma mills, and now employers can check the authenticity of any online institution by contacting their  state’s Better Business Bureau or state attorney general’s office to see if the online degree institution they are concerned with is operating legally and whether it is accredited by a nationally recognized agency.

We can now see whether an online degree institution is legitimate, but how do we know if it is any good? This problem of quality is not unique to online institutions and is shared by face-to-face teaching colleges. In the face-to-face world, there are recognized league tables of degree quality by subject, which you can access to ascertain how good an institution/school actually is, and the same goes for online degrees. There are many surveys out there, but the most reputable and comprehensive online degree program league table I could find was the Best Online Degrees Program Table by the U.S. News and World Report.

This shows how easy it is to authenticate an online degree institution and assess its quality, which means that the last remaining detractor in relation to online degrees is the issue of student authentication, e.g. how can you be sure that the degree holder actually did the work and didn’t simply pay someone else to do it. In truth, we can never be totally sure, but we should be clear that this issue of student authentication and faking are not unique to online institutions; it is a problem which afflicts traditional degrees, too.

But, steps have been taken to reduce faking in online degrees. The College Opportunity and Affordability Act requires online colleges that are receiving federal funds to ensure that the person enrolled in the course is actually doing the work. As a result, these online institutions take student authentication very seriously and many operate face-to-face or secure testing, and others use intensive camera surveillance at the student exam site along with third party monitors. Retinal scanning, electronic finger printing and key stroke analysis are all in the pipeline.

So, as you can see, the online degree sector is maturing and evolving into a very credible education sector. Provided you can verify the educational institution is both legitimate and of sufficient quality, online degrees should be considered on an equal basis to face-to-face degrees.

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Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.