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Should You Recruit Job Candidates With Online Degrees?

University of Phoenix, Capella University, Southern New Hampshire University: We’ve all seen the late night commercials boasting online degree programs at these and other institutions.  Some of these schools are for-profit, some nonprofit, some public. Some have actual college campuses, some do not. When you’re looking to recruit job candidates, is there a way to tell the difference? Does it really matter?

Ten years ago, only a handful of institutions offered fully online degree programs. But that changed over time. According to a Pew Research Report, 77 percent of colleges and universities reported their institution offered courses taking place exclusively in an online environment. Nearly 90 percent of 4-year public institutions reported the same. These statistics from 2011 are likely even higher now.

At the time this Pew Research Report was completed, more than half of employers reported preferring to recruit job candidates with traditional degrees from an average school over candidates with online degrees, even if the online degrees were from top universities. If you’re among the recruiters or hiring managers holding on to this bias, you may be missing out on some great opportunities hints Jo Anne Shea, Ph.D., Director, University Extension at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin).

“Institutions like UT-Austin [are adding] more and more online courses to their standard course offerings,” Shea explains. “Indeed, most students will have taken at least some online courses as part of their degree plan, so perhaps the distinction between online and face-to-face degrees will be something in which we become less interested.”

That being said, below are three key steps in eliminating the online degree barrier when recruiting job candidates.

Check the Institution’s Accreditations

Perhaps the biggest culprit tarnishing the perceived value of online degrees is the history of “bad eggs” that have existed (and, in some cases, still do). These offenders are often called “diploma mills” and they offer admission and award degrees with little selectivity. In some cases, degrees can be essentially purchased and delivered within 30 days.

However, many online degree programs these days have been found to match or even surpass the quality of their offline counterparts. The first indicator of quality is accreditation. Online degree programs can now be accredited in the same way traditional degree programs are. So considering someone with an online degree shouldn’t mean lowering your standards.

At UT-Austin, for instance, the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization Degree offered by McCombs School of Business has an online option for most of its coursework. Whether taken online or face-to-face, the degree program has an outstanding reputation and is accredited through The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), widely called the gold standard of business school accreditation both online and offline.

To easily check the accreditation status of a job candidate’s alma mater, use the College Navigator tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Check the Degree Program’s Rankings

U.S. News & World Report began ranking the Best Online Degree Programs for the first time this past year. Take a look at the rankings and you’ll see most of the top performing institutions are strong in those same areas offline as well. For example, Pennsylvania State University ranks first in online bachelor’s degree programs and also happens to rank in the top 1 percent of traditional universities worldwide.

Phoenix Business Journal recently reported Arizona State University (ASU) clobbered online heavyweight (and geographical neighbor) University of Phoenix with its online bachelor’s degree programs. In the U.S. News and World Report rankings, ASU’s online bachelor’s degree program tied at eighth in the nation, while University of Phoenix tied at 82nd.

Being able to compare the rankings of online degrees in the same way recruiters have compared traditional degrees in the past could be a game changer. And with more sophisticated hybrids of degrees entering the market (many are both online and face-to-face) as well as innovative approaches like competency-based degrees also offered through both delivery methods, we’re entering an era in which the quality of the degree has little to do with whether or not it was acquired online.

Check Your Preconceived Biases at the Door

Once accreditations and program rankings are in check, there’s very little that separates an online degree from a traditional degree anymore.

“The endorsement of a college like the McCombs School of Business and the authorization of an institution such as UT-Austin are more important than the delivery mode of the coursework or program,” says Shea. “Students and employers rightly expect credentials from these sources to signify outstanding quality.”

In fact, online degrees don’t even necessarily cost less since investment in technology and online training can push some online degrees even above the cost of their traditional counterparts. However, the bias remains strong. A 2013 study published in the Global Education Journal showed employers’ perceptions of online schools are more favorable if they themselves have attended online schools.

What’s your take? Do you still have compelling reasons to weed those with online degrees from your candidate pool? We’d love to hear your reasons (or reasons why not).


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