Online College Degrees: Public & Employer Acceptance

by Vicky Phillips, CEO,, LLC


Are online degrees really as good as their campus counterparts?

The answer is known – and it may surprise you.

In a reviewing 355 research studies and reports on distance learning, Dr. Thomas Russell of the University of North Carolina, discovered that when campus learning is compared to distance learning there are "no significant differences" in learner outcome or satisfaction. While many factors effect the overall quality of an educational experience, delivery method alone is not one of them.

Two recent university studies have compared distance MBA students to their residential peers. Both studies have found more similarities than differences between these groups in learner satisfaction and educational outcomes.

Researchers at Colorado State University’s AACSB-accredited business school compared distance students to their campus counterparts and to executive MBA students along a set of 12 academic competencies. Since all three groups took virtually the same curriculum, having the same instructors, with the same AACSB-accredited degree being awarded at conclusion, researchers sought to determine if delivery method alone made any significant difference.

All students were being awarded the same degree, but were they all really receiving the same education?

At degree conclusion all 3 groups reported higher scores on 7 of 12 competencies. Distance students, however, self-reported higher scores than the campus group on 3 measures: technology, quantitative skills, and theory skills.

Mark Kretovics and Jim McCambridge, the study’s authors, concluded: "…the results not only support the notion that distance learning is effective, but they also challenge the ‘no significant difference’ research findings by indicating that distance students may, in fact, learn more than the traditional classroom based students."

In 2001 Canada’s largest, government-approved, distance learning university, Athabasca University, released the results of a study that compared their non-residential MBA students to campus learners at the highly-regarded University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business. The study assessed several levels of learning: social, procedural, explanatory, and cognitive.

The results: online learning allows for greater explanatory and cognitive learning, whereas residential study accentuates and improves social and procedural learning.

Athabasca operates Canada’s largest and fastest growing executive MBA program. The university served more than 1,100 MBA students in 2001 – all at-a-distance.

Asking which is better, brick and mortar or virtual venues, may be akin to asking which is better, Ford or Chevy? The answer is that some people may prefer or require one venue over the other. Each delivery method enhances different, but equally valuable, academic skill sets.

Public Acceptance?

But how do people "feel" about distance degrees? Does the public accept them? More importantly, will your boss feel an online degree represents an inferior education?

Distance learning suffers from a long history of non-accredited providers offering degrees via magazine clip-out coupons. The existence of diploma mills, unaccredited colleges that crank out diplomas, continues to cast a long shadow on all forms of non-residential learning. began surveying employers and students on questions of perceived quality in 1989. Thirteen years of research indicates two solid trends.

Public Acceptance of Distance Degrees has Increased Sharply

Since 1996 there has been a sharp increase in the acceptance of distance degrees. This appears to be related to the rise of the Internet as a delivery method: Americans trust the Internet, and therefore tend to trust degrees delivered this way more than those delivered by older technologies such as cable TV, radio, and mail correspondence.

In 2000, 79% of corporate managers rated a distance degree "as good as" a residential option. Under 50% of corporate managers held this opinion in 1989.

A sharp rise in the number of established brick and mortar educational institutions that offer distance degrees has also heightened public acceptance. Provided an institution is accredited by a recognized agency, greater than 85% of those surveyed in 2001 believed that quality should not be an issue.

Not All Online Universities Rate High in the Public Mind

In 2000, 79% of corporate managers rated a distance degree "as good as" a residential option. (Up from under 50% in 1989). However, this approval rating surpasses 90% when the name of the institution offering the degree is immediately recognizable to the prospective employer.

This last factor is important. It indicates that while distance learning allows people to study from universities located all over the word, wider acceptance may come from attending what we have termed backyard brands™ - residential colleges whose reputations are firmly established in the geographic area where the student currently lives or works.

Distance brands tied to large public university systems, such as California State University, The University of Maryland, the University of Texas System, and Indiana University, tend to receive high approval marks (90% or more) regardless of the assessor’s state of residency.

Universities that lack a brick-and-mortar legacy, offering degrees only by correspondence, earn the lowest approval marks. People are waiting for a new generation of "Internet Only" universities to prove themselves. They tend not to trust universities that operate distance-learning programs only.

While Americans generally love new products and services, higher education is one area where historical longevity breeds consumer trust and confidence.


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