What Do Employers Really Think About Your Online Degree?

Online education has come a long way since the University of Phoenix launched the first online degree program in 1989. Whether or not to take online degrees seriously has been a topic of debate throughout their evolution, though concerns seem to be fading as degree programs grow.

Many higher ed institutions now offer online degree programs — or at least a hybrid of online and on-campus ones — to meet the needs of changing student demographics. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused an upheaval in education from preschool to college, and schools around the world have transitioned from the classroom to virtual environments.

As the pandemic persists, administrators are reexamining how they meet the needs and ensure the safety of faculty, staff, and students. Many higher ed institutions have gone completely online for the fall semester of the 2020–21 academic year. While colleges are becoming even savvier about the way they use technology to provide education, students might have at least one lingering concern: Do employers take online degrees seriously?

We talked with seven business leaders from a range of industries to determine whether they value a traditional degree more than one earned online. Our conversations uncovered the following insights into what employers consider when looking at applicants with online degrees.

1. Traditional Structures Have Shifted

Higher education is evolving along with the professional world. That means employers are rethinking the educational structures that have been in place for hundreds of years.

“A lot of the traditional structures of education were based on archaic traditions and not necessarily designed for superior education,” says Abir Sayed, a certified public accountant (CPA) and owner of Upcounting, a marketing management company for CPAs. “In other words, a person isn’t more competent or knowledgeable because a traditional university teaches better, but the more competent/knowledgeable people tend to go to traditional universities — and that’s what’s changing.

“For some positions — like accounting or engineering — we still lean on traditional education because it feels safer, not because it’s necessarily better. For something like marketing, though, most of the important skills like Google Ads, SEO, social media, etc., aren’t taught properly in university, and most marketers are self-taught. When possible, real-world experience is what matters most.”

2. Experience Can Matter More Than a Degree

While some professions require a college degree, plenty of others rely more on experience than on a diploma.

“Since we’re in the online space ourselves, we understand that the kind of experience that the industry demands is something that a formal degree from a college just won’t provide or do justice to. Knowledge matters, but it can be earned from places that one has access to — even if that means learning on YouTube or other online platform courses that provide a degree,” says Noman Nalkhande, founder of social media marketing firm WP Adventure.

“We’ve never judged people for lack of a degree as long as they can exhibit expertise in their chosen field. As the world is grappling with the pandemic, online education will be even more acceptable, and companies will have to shift their age-old policies to accommodate skilled students even if they don’t have a formal, traditional degree.”

3. Understanding and Owning Your Skills

Your online degree can determine what interview questions you are asked, and it’s important to know how to showcase your unique skills.

“As an IT small business going through a growth spurt right now, we have made decisions both for and against candidates with either degree. For experienced candidates, we found it almost irrelevant as to where and how they obtained their degree. For recent graduates, it changes the focus of the questions,” says Kevin Dominik, president of Univention . “We found that online degree holders are better at self-motivation and self-organization, while those with traditional degrees have an edge with networking and teamwork. Hard-skill-wise, we got both good and bad from either road. All in all, the degree might indicate what to focus on in the interview but has no impact on the value of the candidate.”

4. Knowing How to Sell Yourself in Interviews Is Key

Real-world experience means a lot to potential employers. If you have it, be sure to own it and effectively articulate your ability to rock the skills needed for the job you’re interviewing for.

“When you’re sitting in front of an employer for your interview, how you speak and behave is what gets you the job,” says Chris Brenchley of hiring platform Surehand. “Over time, we have realized that placing emphasis on degrees leads us to miss out on talent. This digital age allows anyone to learn anything — and you do not need to have a degree to show for it. There is a culture of appreciating traditional degrees more than online [degrees], but this pandemic has been an eye-opener for us. If [Ivy League schools] can go online, then there really isn’t a doubt in our heads that online degrees (academically speaking) are the same as your traditional degrees. However, we admit that you will lack the ‘college experience’ and may not develop your people skills as much.”

5. An Online Degree Can Represent Determination

Many online students are working while earning their degrees, which means they’re doing some serious multitasking. Employers know this — and appreciate it.

“Online degrees are usually done part-time or as part of another job/career. This often shows the person’s determination — as well as the ability to multitask — and that they’re not afraid of hard work,” says Brett Downes, founder of HaroHelpers.com. “All things being equal on all other fronts, I will pick the person who has an online degree over a traditional degree, as self-learning is abundant in my industry, and the very top marketers came from this method.”

6. Adaptability Helps Candidates Stand Out

The internet provides opportunities for anyone to sharpen their skills and expand their knowledge. Some employers see online learning as an ability to adapt and as a means of developing transferable skills that can help you stand out against the competition.

“We don’t discriminate against applicants who have earned their degrees through online institutions,” says Michael Hammelburger, CEO of Expense Reduction Group. “We look for candidates who have cross-over skills — something that can be learned whether through the traditional route or online. Those who know how to tap into other skills to allow them to survive in this challenging economy are ahead of the crop. What matters is that they know how to adapt and can prove that whatever challenge there is, they are willing to sweat it out.”

7. Credibility Is Important

Online degrees can be a dime a dozen, which means where you earned your degree really can matter in the eyes of the employer. When enrolling in an online university, it’s important to consider the credibility of the institution just like you would prior to enrolling in a traditional program.

“If I get to know that a degree has been offered online, I would consider a few things. One of them is the credibility of the institution. Honestly, if someone approached you with a Harvard University online-acquired degree, would you doubt it in any way? This would be different if the degree is from an anonymous college,” says James Jason, HR manager, financial analyst, and currency trader at Mitrade. “The other thing I would consider is the major. There are some courses that require maximum hands-on experience, such as engineering, medicine, and so on. If I had to base my hiring decision on these courses, then I would never hire someone who acquired them online. I would equate this to learning to ride a bicycle through reading a book.”

Do Employers Take Online Degrees Seriously?

Employers recognize that online degrees have come a long way since their inception. But as is the case with a traditional degree, it’s up to the graduate to make the most of their online education.

Key takeaways:

  1. Own your skills.
  2. Become your biggest fan: Know how to communicate the capabilities you’ve gained through an online degree program.
  3. Make your degree matter by choosing an accredited program.

Circa Interactive partners with dozens of accredited colleges and universities to help them tell the stories of their institutions and degree programs. Contact us today or explore our solutions and case studies to learn more about how we can help your institution meet its enrollment goals.

Maria Akhter
Maria Akhter is a content strategist at Circa Interactive. She’s passionate about creating the most valuable and optimized content for her clients and improving page rankings through strategic link building. A graduate of UC Davis, Maria worked as a publicist for North Atlantic Books before joining Circa. She has a certificate in data analytics using Excel and a certificate in digital marketing, social media, and e-commerce from The Wharton School. She also recently completed a search engine optimization course through UCSD’s professional advancement extension program.
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