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What Employers Really Think about Your Online Degree

By Linsey Knerl
February 12, 2019

Many students pursuing bachelor’s degrees have busy lives. It may not be possible for them to attend classes in-person due to work, family demands, or other personal commitments. Luckily, there are now many degree programs offered partially or even completely online, meaning these students don’t have to miss out on advancing their careers and achieving their goals.

There may be some reluctance, however, to enroll an online degree program based on worry about how an online degree will be viewed by employers. Are online degrees respected? Can they carry the same weight in a professional environment as a traditional, four-year, on-campus degree?

Here’s the truth about virtual degree programs and the job outlook for those who finish them.

Types of Online Degrees and Programs

Online degrees aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But for anyone with time restrictions or who lives far away from a physical college campus, it’s a realistic avenue for starting and completing a bachelor’s degree in dozens of respected fields.

Some online degree programs are completed 100 percent online, with no physical interaction with other students or professors. Rather than having to attend class on a set schedule, these students can learn at their own pace, studying and completing assignments in the spare time between work shifts and caring for children.

Other online programs feature a hybrid of online and on-campus instruction. These programs may hold a majority of courses virtually with a few cornerstone courses taking place in-person, or in an internship/incubator environment, so students still get valuable face-to-face mentoring.

It’s also possible to have degree programs that simply have an online component, offering hybrid classes that combine in-person and online classes for the same course during a semester—giving live or recorded online learning formats to those who need it most.

The Increasing Popularity of Online Degrees

As the advantages of online learning become more widely documented, virtual degrees are becoming an increasingly popular option for students from all walks of life.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016:

  • Nearly 6 million students—over 28 percent of all college learners—were enrolled in at least one online course at a degree-granting college or university.
  • Of those students, over 2.8 million were exclusively online learners with no in-person courses taken.
  • The majority of online learners were enrolled in undergraduate programs, with 2.1 million exclusively online learners earning a bachelor’s degree.

With so many online learners making up the student body at top institutions, it’s becoming less acceptable for these degrees to be ignored. Companies have been taking notice of this trend and have adjusted their hiring practices to account for all types of degree-earners.

The Truth About Online Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees

Because of how common online learning has become, there’s a noticeable shift in how many people perceive online degrees; there’s no longer quite the stigma attached to pursuing an education through your home computer. But while it’s easy to share anecdotal evidence of how an online degree is “just as valuable as a traditional classroom-based experience,” there’s also data to prove it.

The Department of Education found that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” In addition, “the effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.”

These two statements back up the claim by universities that online degrees are in no way inferior to programs that take place in face-to-face, classroom environments. In fact, they can in some instances provide better outcomes, allowing students who are limited by geography, opportunity, and time to obtain a degree whereas they may have not otherwise been able.

Online Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees: What Employers Really Think

Despite the empirical data, students may still be wary about whether today’s employers consider an online degree to be as good as its on-campus counterpart. How do hiring managers really feel?

The news is positive for online degree holders:

  • 61 percent of HR leaders firmly believe that online learning is of equal or greater quality to more traditional methods.
  • 71 percent of organizations indicated that they had hired a job applicant with an online degree in the last 12 months.
  • 52 percent believe that, in the future, most advanced degrees will be completed online.
  • 33 percent believe that, enabled by technology, online education will ultimately be better than traditional face-to-face instruction.

Not all online degree programs are created equal, however. Where you receive your online degree makes a significant difference in how employers will view your credential.

How Employers Evaluate Online Degrees

As many as 83% of business leaders see an online degree at a “well-known” institution as having the same value as an on-campus degree. If they are not familiar with a school, however, or the institution isn’t known for producing prepared graduates from its programs, your degree may not be seen as having the same value. In fact, 58 percent of employers “believe that an institution’s brand and reputation is the main driver of a credential’s value, regardless of whether or not it was earned online.”

Employers are also more likely to embrace an online degree from a school that provides traditional, on-site coursework in addition to its online offerings. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 92 percent of employers view online degrees from brick-and-mortar schools as favorable, while only 42 percent would consider a candidate with an online degree from a university that operates solely online, despite any accreditation. Many employers infer that brick-and-mortar institutions dedicate the same time and attention to developing online courses as they do for courses held in a physical classroom. Degrees earned from these schools, including Northeastern, are often treated equally.

How to Market Your Online Degree to Employers

More and more employers agree that, for busy professionals who want to better position themselves in the workforce, online degrees are a reputable and flexible alternative to traditional degree programs.

If you’ve completed your online degree (or will in the near future), it’s important to know the right way to frame your education to get the best results in your career search. Even with the growing acceptability of virtual learning environments, it can’t hurt to be mindful with how you describe your education—whether it’s in a resumé or through your in-person elevator pitch.

Here are a few ways to describe your degree to those who may be unfamiliar with the value of an online degree:

  • List (or mention) the tangible skills obtained in the program (e.g. project management skills, fluency in computer programming languages, etc.).
  • Share industry-accepted accreditation or trade qualifications.
  • Detail real-world, hands-on experiences, such as co-ops or capstone projects.
  • Mention mentoring partnerships or workshops you participated in.

Keep your description of your online degree program short and sweet; there’s no need to over-explain. Instead, focus on the top two or three aspects of the program that you think are most notable for the industry you want to join. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of career development programs or job counseling service that may be available as part of your college education, as well. University experts are often on hand to help iron out the details of explaining your worth.

Finally, embrace what makes an online degree different from other programs. Since finishing an online degree requires time management, collaboration, tech literacy, and a motivated personality, you should be able to share how your online degree completion has contributed to your ability to learn and work independently over a lifetime. Emphasize to your future employer that the challenges of a virtual education are exactly why you are undoubtedly prepared for the job.

Considering that the majority of HR professionals are more concerned with where you got a degree than how you got one, Northeastern graduates are poised for success. With over 120 years as an accredited institution, and with 5+ brick-and-mortar campus locations, when you say that you’re a graduate of Northeastern University, that means something. Conversations about how you earned your degree will only work to support the fact that you are driven, able to multi-task, and unwilling to allow obstacles to keep you from your educational and career goals.

With online degrees becoming a normal part of the future professional’s path to self-improvement and skills-training, isn’t it time you explored the options available to you? Explore Northeastern’s online bachelor’s (or online graduate) programs today.


About Linsey Knerl
Linsey Knerl is a content contributor for Northeastern University.