Employers, Students Remain Skeptical of Online Education

Less than 5 percent of students and employers said students learn more in online programs.

A new survey found many employers still prefer applicants with traditional degrees more so than those with online degrees.
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Although public support for online education has grown in recent years, both employers and students remain skeptical about the effectiveness and quality of online degrees, according to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Public Agenda.

In a survey of 656 human resources professionals released Wednesday, the researchers found that although nearly half of employers said online-only programs require more discipline, 56 percent said they still prefer applicants with traditional degrees from an average university over those with an online degree from a top university. Overall, most employers (82 percent) said a combination of in-person and online education would benefit the majority of students.

[READ: 3 Ways Colleges Are Adapting to Online Learning]

"How [employers] view online degrees, though, will probably depend on the quality of the new hires they encounter from online programs, and how these hires compare to those who have gone through traditional programs," the report says. "Their lingering skepticism may also indicate a general need for better communication between colleges and employers about the knowledge and skills the latter seek in their employees."

There was also a disconnect how much work students felt were required in an online class and how much they felt they were learning. Of the 215 current community college students surveyed, 61 percent said online classes require more discipline, but more than one-third said those classes are harder to pass, and nearly all said those who take online courses learn "about the same" (53 percent) or less (42 percent) than those in traditional classes.

This disconnect may come from the fact that many community college students are pushed into taking online courses if others are over-enrolled or a course they need is only offered online, according to Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda.

"We found there were quite a few people who are taking classes online who wish they would take fewer," Hagelskamp says. "A lot of people are also saying they learn less. The bottom line is, 'What am I getting there? I have to put more discipline in, they're harder to pass and I'm learning less.'"

But despite their reluctance to hire applicants with online degrees, 80 percent of the employer respondents said online-only degrees provide more opportunities for adult students who may have to balance school with work and family responsibilities.

[MORE: Breaking Down the Cost of an Online Course]

"The biggest thing about online learning has absolutely nothing to do with distance. It has to do with moving time around," says John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, where the average student age is 38. "Online education is not, in my judgment, all that appropriate for an 18-to 24-year old. But it is absolutely critical to the graduate student or to the adult student who needs to be able to mix going back to school with life."

Certain online programs, Ebersole says, have the ability to be adaptive to students' needs in a way that classroom instruction is not.

"If you look at one's preferred style of learning and you look at one's current knowledge base, you can take that into consideration in the way in which you present the information that follows, either by going to their dominant learning style or advancing the content so they're not spending time on stuff they already know," Ebersole says. "You don't do that in a classroom. Traditional higher education can't do that. It's not popular to say so, but I think we deliver a superior product."

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