If anything was going to get in the way of his job prospects, he figured it would be the lack of a master’s degree – not his choice to pursue distance education.
“I’ve interviewed several places and no one has asked me if I’m going on-campus for classes,” says Schnackenberg, a train conductor instructor and full-time student. “I think they care more about my major and my GPA.”
Schnackenberg might be onto something. The number of job candidates with online bachelor’s degrees has rapidly increased in recent years, recruiters say. At the same time, acceptance of the degrees by employers is becoming more common.
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That hasn’t always been the case, though.
Only a few years ago, in 2009, a literature review by Cleveland State University found that human resource managers, executives and other gatekeepers had negative perceptions of online degrees. Some recruiters blame the stigma on the last decade’s "diploma mills" – online, unaccredited programs known for offering a degree to anyone with a full wallet.
But these days, employers rarely question the quality of online programs, says Susan Fontana, regional vice president of Manpower, a global recruiting firm.
“Things have changed,” says Fontana, whose company works with Fortune 100 companies and small and midsize businesses. “I think 10 years ago, you probably had a little more questioning, but it really is so much more accepted today.”
In fact, sometimes an online bachelor’s degree can be an advantage in the eye of an employer, Fontana says. In some cases, entrepreneurs favor students such as Schnackenberg, who have juggled multiple commitments while earning their degree.
“When you think about balancing a job and the needs of a family with school, that says a lot about the discipline of a person,” Fontana says.
There are several reasons why online bachelor’s degrees are increasingly becoming accepted, including the sheer number of students taking online courses, experts say. About 7.1 million students took at least one online course during the fall of 2012, according to the most recent findings from the Babson Survey Research Group.
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Chris Cullen, a brand consultant for colleges and universities, says the perception of online degrees has also changed as top-ranked schools have started offering more distance education options and massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
“In the past couple of years schools like MIT, Stanford, Duke and Johns Hopkins have joined the online education landscape,” says Cullen, managing director at Infinia DC. "It elevates the concept of online higher ed. Just by their participation the category is lifted."
Despite the evolution of online education, some employers are still wary of online degrees, recruiters say.
Mary Massad, division president of recruiting services for Insperity, a firm that provides recruiting services to more than 100,000 small and midsize businesses, says her clients have a variety of opinions on the degrees.
About 75 percent of her clients have embraced online credentials. As for the other 25 percent, she doesn’t count on changing their minds.
“There are people who are very resistant and very traditional in the way they perceive an online degree,” she says. “For some, it’s just deeply embedded in how they think.”
Although having an online bachelor’s degree isn’t a deal breaker for most of her clients, Massad says having an online degree from an unaccredited school is a sure way to get a resume discarded. Before you enroll in a program, make sure it is accredited, she says.
“You can go into this with eyes wide open – and you should,” she says.
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Cullen, of Infinia DC, says some employers favor traditional bachelor’s degrees simply because they are more familiar.
To avoid having an online degree discounted, he recommends enrolling in a program that has brand recognition in the relevant field.
“In time, a person’s experience will outweigh their education on their resume,” he says. “But all things being equal, an employer will judge your education based on their own personal familiarity with the institution that provided the degree.”
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