How Credible Are Online Colleges to Employers?

College student with resume

The conversation about online learning used to be about whether it would "catch on." With the advent of advanced technologies that have encouraged more and more students to embrace online classes, and even full-fledged online degree programs, there is little question that online learning has caught-on. Whether online college programs are considered credible is still evolving, but the latest research shows that employers are warming up to non-traditional degrees.

The Growth of Online Learning

Stats like these illustrate the proliferation of online learning programs:

  • Online learning enrollment is growing at a rate 14 times faster than regular higher education enrollment. It is expected that about 98% of learning will be in a blended learning model by 2020, according to Edudemic.com.
  • About 7.1 million students took at least one online course during the fall of 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

One of the reasons why students are choosing accredited online colleges or a blended learning experience that combines both classroom and online coursework is convenience. Without a commute to make to a campus or a set time to attend classes, more people have access to learning who at one time might not have, whether it's a stay-at-home mom, a member of the military, a working professional, or someone who does a lot of business travel.

Another reason is accessibility. Not too long ago, finding an online degree program to match your needs and goals was challenging. Today, there are so many online colleges, as well as online divisions of traditional universities, that there are more options than ever before.

Online Learning and the Workforce

As it's entered the mainstream, online learning is becoming a gateway toward career advancement for many adults who are already in the working world, but want to go back to school to earn their degree or advanced certifications or credentials. For those who may be wondering "are online colleges credible?" there's good news: many of the job candidates you are competing with have studied via an online program at some point. Whereas a decade or so ago, there might have been a stigma attached to e-learning, today's business leaders are mostly concerned with the accreditation status of the institutions their potential hires have attended (whether online or campus-based), and more important, if they developed the skills that are required for success in the workplace.

"In the Gallup Lumina Poll of Business leaders published in February 2014, business leaders say that the managers responsible for making hiring decisions are far less concerned with where job candidates earn their degrees, or even the type of degree itself, than they are with what knowledge and skills a candidate brings to the table," explains Courtney Brown, Director of Organizational Performance and Evaluation at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

The study also found that all else being equal, 54 percent of respondents said they are likely to hire a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider over a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.

"There are some people out there that are old school and they want to see a traditional classroom experience, but you find that less and less now," says Rich Thompson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Adecco Group, North America. "Sometimes I am more impressed with a candidate if they have done all that they can to earn an online degree or certification while working."

In fact, he says when candidates have completed an online education, it's a sign or mark of being a self starter. "People choose an online route for a reason. If that reason makes sense and it shows they are highly motivated to complete their degree, I'm impressed with that."

Thompson notes that he's finding the same type of sentiment within the human resources community, where he says there is a greater appetite for people who have a blended approach to education, including certifications and coursework that has helped them stay up to speed on industry changes.

Brown says that the Lumina study supports this notion. "Of four factors presented in the poll, the vast majority of business leaders (84%) reported that the amount of knowledge a candidate has in the field as a very important factor to managers making hiring decisions for organizations. Almost as many (79%) said candidate's applied skills in the field is a very important factor. But only 9% said where the candidate received his or her college degree is a very important factor in hiring decisions for managers."

Job Hunting Tips for Online Students

If you're considering an online school, are currently enrolled in an online program, or have an online degree in hand, here are some expert tips for maximizing your employment prospects.

Combine online learning with hands-on experience. Employers want to be able to relate to the candidate's experience, so oftentimes, having an internship or related work/volunteer experience under your belt will help set you apart, says Lauren Berger, CEO & Founder of InternQueen.com. "It will also show you've worked on your soft communication skills and been inside a professional environment."

Promote your skills, not your degree. Rather than focusing on where or how you earned your degree, job seekers need to demonstrate how they can bring their learned skills and experiences to prospective employers, says Thompson: "For employers, it is all about what a job seeker knows and can do, not where they went or what their degree or major is."

Go beyond job postings for the best opportunities. While your online college experience might have been virtual and streamlined, face time and people skills are necessary for finding a good job. "The best jobs are found by people that are well connected and well networked. You have to be proactive," says Thompson. Start with an idea of the types of companies you want to work for, and then pinpoint specific people and the networks they are associated with to get your foot in the door, he says. "The strategy of lobbing emails into HR or posting resumes is not as effective as being in an alumni association, or professional network since the good jobs are never really advertised."

With more online college programs available and a wider acceptance of online degrees among employers, being an online student may eventually become the norm for anyone looking to update their skills and boost their educational credentials.


1. "Babson Study: Over 7.1 Million Higher Ed Students Learning Online," http://www.babson.edu/news-events/babson-news/pages/140115-babson-survey-study-of-online-learning.aspx
2. Courtney Brown, Director of Organizational Performance and Evaluation at Lumina Foundation, interviewed by author via email, 8/20/2014
3. Lauren Berger, CEO & Founder of InternQueen.com, interviewed by author via email, 8/20/2014
4. "Today’s business leaders say, “It’s what you know, not where you go” when making hiring decisions, new study shows," http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/news_releases/2014-02-25.html
5. Rich Thompson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Adecco Group, North America, interviewed by author, 8/20/2014
6. "Whoa. Education Is a Trillion Dollar Industry," http://www.edudemic.com/whoa-education-is-a-7-trillion-dollar-industry/