In recent years, students seeking higher education have increasingly opted for online programs over traditional degrees. Some seek particular, technical skills, but do not have the time or resources to pursue a degree full-time at a university. Computer programmers and design entrepreneurs as well as aspiring business people with desire to work in a specialized niche (such as social media marketing) are among those opting for online programs. Such programs offer flexibility and allow time to fulfill work and family obligations while completing a degree. Others seek an online degree because it can be more cost and time effective than a traditional degree. Mature and nontraditional students, who have difficulty entering traditional programs or feel uncomfortable with the youth of their classmates, represent the largest demographic currently gravitating towards online programs. While online programs have made access to education more democratic, do employers view alumni of online programs as comparable to traditional degree holders? How are online programs viewed in the increasingly specialized and tech-driven job market?

What the experts have to say….

According to Zogby International and Excelsior College, over 60% of business owners had a familiarity with online and distance learning programs and over 80% stated that an online degree would be viewed as credibly as a traditional one.¬†¬†Marketing and accounting degrees, which were traditionally available only through business programs, are offered online. Individuals who combine such degrees with highly desirable technical skills, such as Ruby on Rails proficiency or SEO optimization expertise, are deemed as competitive as their peers with traditional degrees. Second, the poll found that accreditation, a sound reputation for academics, and high quality alumni impact how employers view an online or distance program more profoundly than the fact that it takes place “virtually.”

What employers have to say…

Some employers have embraced the advent of online programs and are actively participating in its development. Large corporations, especially those with engineering and computing recruiters, are investing in online programs. Google and AT&T have designed particular courses for individuals seeking online degrees or certifications that focus on skills not commonly taught in a college classroom. Such courses may focus on mobile application development, new coding languages, and robotics. Another difference is the portfolio-building focus of such programs. Inspired by online coding learning sites, such as Code Academy, these programs attempt to make learning calculus alongside graphic design both fun and practical. They often use the tools and visual language of social media, where badges, likes, and profiles are used to motivate students and measure progress. Exercises and assignments are adapted from “real world” assignments. For instance, low-residency MFA programs, which are shifting completely to an online format, will involve corporations in their group studio projects. An assignment for an interactive design course at Parson’s engaged JP Morgan’s human resources department. Students created a more artistic, 3-D interface demonstrating mathematical data to investment bankers. This fulfilled their group studio requirement while producing a meaningful product for JP Morgan. Students who excelled in this assignment also essentially began a relationship with a prospective employer.

What’s available…

While corporate investment in online programs indicates an openness and interest in the future of online education, and, by extension, online degree graduates, it is unclear how the job market looks on graduates who attended “online versions” of traditional schools. MIT, Harvard, CalTech, and other exclusive institutions are placing many courses online – for free. While this is deemed a radical democratization of education by professors and experts, whether the job market sees Harvard Online as the same as Harvard has not yet been determined. The networking, after-class interaction, and camaraderie outside the classroom is absent for such programs.
Online degrees have fostered another level of public-private partnership. Some corporations are working with universities to design certificate programs that are specific to the workplace. Walmart partnered with MIT to create a set of courses called the XSeries, which allow students to earn certificates in general management, supply-chain business management, and more. The cost is less than $1000 and courses are open to individuals employed by the company who wish to move up the corporate ladder through education.
Public-private partnership through online degrees acquires a global perspective in Coursera, an international, free, online set of courses provided through reputable public policy institutes and universities. Coursera’s students come from China, India, the US, and Europe and are often seasoned professionals seeking additional education. At the same time, Coursera attracts students who wish to pursue online degrees through very short, intensive courses in mathematics, science, programming, artificial intelligence, and other emerging fields.

While these developments in online education indicate that the job market is open, willing, and actively participating in the production of online degree holders, it is important to note another trend in online degrees – fraud. In 2009, a huge scam promoting degrees in medical assisting, paralegal work, and administrative work was uncovered. These online, private institutions charged exorbitant fees for associate’s degrees and did so without accreditation. Individuals who would have been the first to receive college degrees were especially vulnerable. Credits associated with such programs cannot be transferred because the school’s programs are often not comparable to what is offered in a traditional school. In addition, individuals who receive such credits cannot pursue coursework elsewhere; often the school will mysteriously “shut down.”The Better Business Bureau has reported several online programs operating in this fraudulent way.
From the perspective of the job market, an online degree has the potential to offer as much or more to an individual than a traditional degree. Online degrees can offer more direct access to employers or hiring companies, which are working to create online programs for ambitious students or current employees. Online degrees can also allow an individual to hone particular skills more deeply and avoid spending time on general education credits, waiting for a needed course to appear the following semester, and other difficulties associated with acquiring a degree through traditional means. However, online degrees are only as competitive as their reputation. Only accredited online programs that produce quality graduates will be viewed as competitive by employers. In an increasingly competitive job market, an online degree can, indeed, be a game changer.

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