Students are enrolling in online degree programs at a faster pace than ever before. Online learning can be as effective as traditional. Its flexibility is great for people wanting to make a career change or develop themselves while working — and it provides learning opportunities that may not be available nearby.
With the uptick in online degrees, we wanted to examine their perception among employers. Here are a few things to consider before incurring the time and monetary cost of taking courses online.
Reputation is really important
What do employers think about online IT degrees? That’s a great question.
Lately employers – particularly hiring managers in specialized disciplines like IT – are much more comfortable with online degrees, especially from established schools.
It helps that many prestigious universities have started their own online programs. The faculty and curriculum can be largely the same between the on-campus and online programs, and generally, the degree has no indication that it was earned online. (In fact, many on-campus degrees are now “blended” and have a digital component, so the distinction is shrinking.)
But this transition in regard employer opinion is ongoing. Some companies are still hesitant about online degrees. Older managers, in particular, can be suspicious. An online degree, particularly if it’s not from a known, reputable school – and a school with a residential campus – might still be discounted.
For-profit schools, in particular, have some stigma and that may count against you in the pool of competitors. Some for-profits have become notorious for deceptive recruitment practices, unreasonable expense, and abysmal graduation rates. If you’ve already graduated with one of these degrees, you can certainly augment your degree with certifications.
When choosing an institution, its reputation and accreditation are significant. It helps when an authority affirms that the program meets quality standards. It also helps when the school and the accrediting organization have strong reputations among local companies.
Interestingly, many online students live within easy driving distance of their online school’s campus. One study found that 84.2 percent of online students live in the same state as their college or university.
An online degree is only one facet influencing the evaluation of a candidate. The school’s reputation, combined with your work history, will often count more than whether the degree was online or in-person.
Why get a degree at all?
For some jobs, a four-year degree is required just to get in the door. And for many companies, a technical degree beats out commensurate experience. A degree also may be used as a screening filter when there’s a need to winnow a pool of candidates.
If your desired job role is not purely technical but has a management or business component, a degree may make sense, particularly one that addresses people skills and integrates business skills with up-to-date expertise on technology.
A degree will hopefully support not just your next position, but your long-term career. It should arm you with the ability to learn quickly and think creatively about the opportunities and challenges of your field.
But a degree costs much more in time, hours, and calendar than a certificate. Depending on where you are at and where you want to go, it may or may not be your best tradeoff.
What about graduate certificates?
If you already have at least a bachelor’s degree, getting a graduate certificate demonstrates you’ve studied focused coursework on specific topics within a field and particular skills. The graduate certificate may be a subset of a larger graduate degree program (like a master’s), providing credit that could later be applied to that degree.
Most graduate certificates take at least a year, but there are some distinct benefits here. A graduate (or any other) degree doesn’t expire or require renewal and isn’t specific to a particular vendor’s tech. Adding a well-chosen certification on top of your degree can demonstrate new or advanced skills, and show new expertise in emerging technology.
In general, it’s a good idea to carefully consider the job roles you are pursuing. For breadth and the long term, the foundational knowledge provided by a degree is essential. For a specific discipline, certifications are often more valuable. Many positions require skills demonstrated by certifications more than knowledge demonstrated by a more advanced degree. Can an industry certification provide the skills and knowledge you need?
Certifications help any degree — not just online
So, what do you chose to advance your career, an online degree or industry certifications? It depends on where you are at in your career and where you want to get to.
There are some key considerations here while making these choices:
Cost, hours, and calendar time.
- What does the option cost? Will your employer help pay for it? Is there financial aid?
- Do your personal life and finances permit you to pursue the option full time, part time, or only “very part-time”?
- How many months or years will the option take to complete?
The employment opportunities it opens up.
- What credentials are most valued for the job role you are after? Some fields prefer specific degree, some want certificates and job experience. Look at the job descriptions in your area. What’s sought after?
- While you are in training, does the option enable you to continue work, or offer internship opportunities, so you can be gaining both cash and real-world experience?
Once you have the degree or certificate, what options are open to you down the road, and what responsibilities have you signed up for in order to get full value out of your achievement?
Over the long-term
There is a clear value to having both. Certifications provide skills and specialized knowledge. Degrees add fundamentals, breadth, and additional soft skills. The combination of a degree and certifications qualify you for career paths that neither would, alone. As you progress in your career, add certifications and degrees as needed. The well-rounded professional has a combination of both.
Online degrees are more trusted than they were a few years ago, but care must still be taken to choose a reputable institution. Well-respected certifications, far more focused, hit to the heart of what you know and are a superior choice for many spots along your career path.