Still a Long Climb for Online Universities

Online degrees gain respect among hiring managers, but traditional degrees are still more reputable.

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Doreen Clark graduated from Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis in 2006 and immediately considered pursuing an M.B.A. When someone suggested she try an online degree, she was incredulous. "Who does that?" she says. "Online? I remember thinking it was just crazy." 

But after some research, and realizing she would have difficulty obtaining an M.B.A. while working as a full-time public relations representative, the once-crazy idea seemed sane. A year after graduating from Metropolitan State, she enrolled in the University of Phoenix in hopes of obtaining an M.B.A. in marketing. She finished the program in October 2009 with a 3.91 GPA, but has been unable to find a job. She did, however, start her own PR company and lure a national retail client. "My education gave me added background and credentials for this step," she says. "[But] I still see that many large companies [only] want to hire from the big [name] schools." 

[Learn more about online degrees before you enroll.] 

Other people with online graduate degrees may find themselves wading into similarly lukewarm employment waters. A survey of 449 human resource professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management released in September indicates that only 49 percent of HR officials feel that an online degree is equally credible to one from a traditional school. "[The job market] has been a challenge for everybody, but it has been more challenging for people with online degrees because companies over the last year or so have been extremely particular on what they're looking for," says David Kimmelman, publisher of career advice site GetTheJob.com

The survey also indicated that 87 percent of HR professionals view online degrees in a more favorable light than they did five years ago. Career counselors like Bruce A. Hurwitz, who regularly works with job seekers armed with online degrees, have taken notice. While he refuses to assist people who acquired degrees from online institutions with questionable accreditation or no accreditation at all, he claims that employers no longer scoff at résumés from applicants who attended better-known online schools like the University of Phoenix. "It's not an issue," Hurwitz says. "Hiring managers say, 'so what?' when I tell them a candidate is from an online school. As long as they're properly accredited, who cares?" 

[Learn about how to find a credible online M.B.A.

Though Hurwitz has experienced firsthand that the market is growing kinder to online graduates, data indicate that many hiring managers are still wary. Forty-five percent of the HR managers surveyed said that candidates with traditional degrees have a better chance of being hired for a given position than someone possessing an online degree. Kimmelman suggests that online degrees are best suited for lower-level job seekers in fields like criminal justice or medical assistance and that it will take time for graduate degrees obtained online to gain esteem. "If you're looking at hiring a world class marketing person for your business and [you have a résumé from] somebody that goes to a top business school in the U.S., there's a much stronger likelihood that that person will get a job than somebody with an online business degree in marketing," he says. 

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