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Online Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees: What's the Perception?


Online education is becoming a popular choice for many students. According to the non-profit Sloan Consortium, dedicated to the reach and quality of online education, just under 4 million students were enrolled in an online course in 2007, with continued growth predicted for the years to follow, at a rate more than 10 times the rate of traditional enrollment. Yet, there exists legitimate concern that an online degree doesn’t carry the clout of a traditional degree. Students considering an online education should take a few factors into consideration.

Image vs. Reality

Despite high enrollment numbers and a rapid rise of online education awareness, the cultural perception of online education is mixed. While the advantages of online education are widely disseminated in popular media outlets, the stigma of online education persists, particularly at the hiring level. Diploma mills are part of the problem: online education scams run rampant and erode some of the positive gains made by legitimate online programs. Yet, it may just take some time for online education territory to settle into good standing. In his book, The Way We'll Be, John Zogby looks at the popular polls that bear his name and finds that less than 30 percent of 5,000 polled adults consider the quality of online education equivalent to that found at traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Despite this, he argues that the cultural image will catch up soon enough. As a January 20, 2010 New York Times headline put it: "If Your Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online." While the article, based on a Kaiser Family Foundation study, suggested kids ages 8-18 spend most of their online time for recreation, and only "2 percent" for homework, there's no escaping that younger generations are growing up with technology as a fact of life. And this is likely to breed even greater numbers of students receptive to an education conducted online.

Right now, the numbers show that plenty of online students are willing to pioneer the path to general acceptance. For a few good reasons. Online education is proving itself in certain fields of study. The MBA is one of the most popular online degrees, as are degrees in health care, computer technology, and certain specialties in education. Another factor is flexibility. Working adults, looking for professional advancement or broader credentials, find that online education offers greater flexibility than night and weekend programs conducted on campuses. Yet another factor is choice, particularly for adults rooted deeply in one place who now have the ability to attend a school that is far from home.

The overall reputation of online education is greatly benefiting from the participation of traditional colleges and universities that now offer online components. Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth are offering online options in certain disciplines, as are public universities such as University of Florida, University of Massachusetts, University of Michigan, and the University of Washington.

Not all online schools are legitimate, nor are all traditional brick-and-mortal schools for that matter, but the fundamental principle - that geography is no impediment to higher education - is gaining traction, fans, and converts - and it is safe to say the saturation point has not yet been reached. Plus, as the online education marketplace grows, competition should breed improvement and innovation.

It Comes Down To The Program

Like traditional colleges, some online institutions are more highly regarded than others. It's about where you go and how that degree is regarded in your chosen field. To ensure that the degree you pursue is perceived as valuable, you should take several factors into consideration.

  • Accreditation - Accreditation means that an institution has been evaluated by an independent agency and determined to be a legitimate and sound provider of education. Accreditation is not awarded by one central agency but rather by a number of agencies. The most reliable agencies are officially recognized by the Department of Education. Accreditation mills issue phony accreditation: don't automatically assume that accreditation information is authentic. See companion article on this site for more detailed information about diploma mills.
  • Reputation - For online programs that are part of traditional universities, reputation may be commonly known. Nevertheless, source out reviews, evaluations, student opinion, and rankings for how both the traditional university and their online component fares in your particular field of study. If your search is limited to colleges that only offer online programs, the research may be more involved and all the more necessary.
  • Field or Industry - Some fields and industries are more amenable to online degrees than others. Research how online programs serve your field or industry in comparison to other fields and industries. Research how they compare to traditional programs. Survey your professional network. Discuss options with your human resources manager. See if distinctions are made between online education and online education provided by certain schools.
  • Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008, Elaine Allen, Ph.D. and Jeff Seaman, Ph.D., Sloan-C Publications, 2008
  • "Employer Perceptions of Online Degrees: A Literature Review", Columbaro & Monaghan, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Spring 2009
  • "If You're Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online", Tamar Lewin, New York Times, January 20, 2010 (
  • "Pollster's New Book Likens Online Universities to Zip Cars in Their Growing Appeal" by Goldie Blumenstyk,
  • "What are Online Students Studying?", (
  • "Online Degrees Earning Respect--to a degree", Eve Tahmmincioglu, (
  • "Ivy League Universities", online-college-blog (
  • "The Sound of One Hand Clicking", Karen Breslau, Newsweek, Aug 12, 2009 (

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