As online degrees start showing up on people's resumes, what will the business world think of them?
Don't count on seeing comedian Drew Carey's picture on online university marketing materials anytime soon. The ABC improv host opened his Jan. 25 show saying, "Welcome to "Whose Line Is It Anyway," the show where everything is made up and the points don't matter , just like a degree from an online university." The audience roared with laughter. Presumably, graduates, instructors and deans at online universities roared with something else.
If it's true, as 19th century French author Charles Baudelaire once said, that laughter comes from a notion of superiority, do Carey's comments spell trouble for graduates of online programs? Think of it. You labor for years earning your degree from an institution recognized by an accrediting board for its academic rigor, only to have a hiring manager, not to mention the general public, look at your resume and say, "Where'd you get that degree, out of a Cracker Jack box?"
"The bad guys have really muddied the water for the good guys," says John Bear, an educational consultant for Degree.net in Berkeley, Calif., and author of Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees Non-traditionally. The 2001 edition lists 481 "diploma mills" , companies that will give you a degree in anything for the right price. "The fake degree industry is about a $200 million a year industry," says Bear.
And the challenge of how to recognize fake degrees is something hiring managers are facing more and more. Bear recently searched Monster.com, a leading online job bank, to find out how many resumes listed degrees from diploma mills. "The search engine stops at 500, and almost every bad school that I put in had 500-plus hits," he says. Furthermore, Bear says, some HR departments are "pretty much clueless" about the existence of diploma mills and the fact that they may be hiring "graduates" of these schools.
Baby with the bath water?
It seems the more attention that Bear and others bring to the problem of diploma mills, the more wary people become of any degree. "I really sense the trend is to be more careful," Bear says, adding that some recruitment ads even go so far as to say they check all resumes through credential evaluators.
A recent study by New York City-based Vault.com, a career information and research firm, suggests employers may be especially cautious about hiring job applicants with online degrees. "There's still uneasiness about dot-com diplomas. There's anxiety and skepticism as to whether these degrees carry the same weight as traditional offline educational experiences," says Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault.com.
Researchers for Vault.com interviewed 239 hiring managers and found, among other things, that only 26 percent believe that a bachelor's degree earned online is as credible as one earned in a classroom (see "View from a resume pile," p. 54). Thirty-seven percent said they believe a graduate degree obtained online is as credible as one earned traditionally.
Don Smithmier, director of marketing for Capella University, an online school in Minneapolis, says the study may have the wrong focus. He says most people who seek graduate degrees from Capella are adults who have been in the work force for years. And what hiring managers say they think of online degrees in theory, he says, may be very different from how they would treat a candidate who has a degree from an online school plus years of relevant experience.
In researching this story, we asked a number of hiring managers for their opinions of online degrees. None were willing to give more than stock answers about "evaluating each candidate on an individual basis."
Ronald Beach, who was recently hired as director of manufacturing for LSI Logic, a supplier of communications chips in Milpitas, Calif., says no one questioned his master's degree in organizational management from Capella University when he interviewed for the job. "It was actually to my benefit, because one of the things I will be in charge of is training," he explains. It didn't hurt that the director of operations, who hired Beach, happened to be taking online classes at the time.
Beach's experience may not be typical. The Vault.com study listed anonymous comments from hiring managers, and they tended to be less than flattering. "I still view this as close to the equivalent of earning a GED through a Sally Struthers correspondence course," wrote one.
The findings didn't surprise Bear. Ideally, he says, companies should look at what each candidate did to earn his or her degree. "But that's too much work for most HR people. It's just so much easier to throw out the healthy babies with the bath water," he says.
In fact, Bear found a similar concern among university registrars last year. In a study he's finishing, he discovered that transfer credits from regionally accredited online universities are accepted 90 percent of time. The other 10 percent are carefully scrutinized before they are accepted or denied. The acceptance rate for credits from traditional accredited universities is over 99 percent.
Robert Manuel, chief information technology officer in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at New York University (NYU), says the distinctions made by hiring managers and registrars are unfair. "We are developing courses that are every bit as academically rigorous as our onsite courses. We are developing a model that will have the same admission standards and the same cachet in the workplace as onsite learning," he says.
In fact, NYU makes no distinction between its courses in terms of the type of degree a student earns. "If you take 90 percent of your courses onsite and 10 percent online, you get a degree from NYU. If you take 90 percent of your courses online and 10 percent onsite, you still get a degree from NYU," he says.
Brand name game
Manuel points to an interesting subtext in the online degree debate. Even though NYU doesn't distinguish between online and offline degrees, some institutions do. And established institutions that start online degree programs appear to have more clout in a hiring manager's mind. The Vault.com study found that 77 percent of hiring managers believe that an online degree earned through an established institution like Duke University or Stanford University is more credible than one earned through Internet-only institutions such as Capella University or Jones International.
Bear says it's a superficial answer because Capella and Stanford have the same regional accreditation. But, he says, it makes sense. If you told your boss your new hire is a Stanford graduate, it probably wouldn't raise eyebrows. But Bear points out that if hiring managers look at nothing more than universities? names, the Stanford in Louisiana and the University of Wyoming in Switzerland , two diploma mills , will slip right under the radar.
Evaluating job candidates shouldn't be a matter of recognizing the names of the schools they attended, Bear says. Instead, the question should be: "What did they have to do to earn the degree?"
-Chris Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant editor of Online Learning Magazine.
If you're pursuing an online degree in instructional design or any other field, you may have to go that extra mile to convince potential employers that your studies were legitimate. The following are some suggestions on how to do that:
Show relevant experience.
John Bear, an educational consultant for Degree.net in Berkeley, Calif., suggests getting some all-important work experience on your resume. Real-world experience, he says, is more important than any degree in proving your abilities.
Back up your program.
Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault.com, suggests including letters of recommendation from credible outside sources about your program and a letter detailing the program's requirements "so it looks less like a mail-order degree and more like a legitimate educational experience."
Take a course or two offline.
Oldman's firm, which has studied HR managers? opinions of online degrees, found the lack of social interaction among students is one of hiring managers? biggest concerns. He suggests taking offline classes in public speaking, debate or group dynamics to prove that you can work in the bricks-and-mortar world.
Look into it first.
Bear says he receives many a tear-stained letter from people who thought they were pursuing a degree from a program they thought would be acceptable, only to find out it was not. He says before enrolling, the best thing to do is to ask your employer whether the degree will be acceptable. If you are looking for a particular kind of job, call some HR managers at companies that have such positions and ask if the degree meets their requirements.
- C. Jones
View From a Resume Pile
Vault.com, a New York City career advice firm, surveyed 239 HR professionals in September 2000 regarding job candidates with online degrees. Researchers found:
• 13 percent of respondents said online undergraduate degrees were unacceptable. Only 26 percent said an online bachelor's degree was as credible as a traditional degree.
• 9 percent said online graduate degrees were unacceptable. Only 37 percent said an online graduate degree was as credible as a traditional degree.
When asked why online degrees were not as credible:
• 61 percent said students don't interact enough with each other.
• 53 percent felt it was too early to gauge the effectiveness of online degrees.
• 39 percent cited a loss of real-time pedagogical exchange.
• 37 percent believed there is a higher potential for lower admission standards and 33 percent thought the curriculum was less rigorous.
• 30 percent said students in online programs are not taught to think critically.
? C. Jones
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