Is an Online Degree a Good Idea?

Note from Katie: This guest post is brought to you by James Hinton, who previously shared "Study Abroad for History Majors" on My College Advice. 

So, let’s talk about online degrees.

Back in 2010, the U.S. Accountability Office investigated a number of online degree programs and declared them to be rife with fraud and deceptive marketing. I’m not going to name them (no free advertising from me for those creeps!), but several big-name for-profit organizations were declared to be nothing less than scams. Fifteen different organizations wound up being named during Senate testimony when the report was released.

This has, of course, left a bad taste in people’s mouth regarding online degrees. Nevertheless, the fact these frauds were so successful highlighted that there was a need to be filled. For many people, the ability to get a degree through an online program opens doors that otherwise would be closed to them. For many non-traditional students, attendance on site is simply not a realistic option. Online education is the solution for many of these people, and these programs took advantage of it.

Online classes: Just add wifi and you're set...but without some of the benefits of a 'traditional' classroom.  

Online classes: Just add wifi and you're set...but without some of the benefits of a 'traditional' classroom.  

The scandal woke up many traditional, respectable schools to the fact that this need existed. These days a number of well-established institutions are offering online degree programs in a surprising number of fields. In the U.S.A., USC offers advanced nursing degrees online, while the nation’s only private military college, Norwich University, offers a Civil Engineering degree. In the U.K. the University of Liverpool has multiple online programmes, as does the University of London.

The fact that these well-known and established institutions are now offering online degree programs takes the fraud concerns out of the equation. But the question remains, are online degrees a good idea? Will an online degree provide the same quality of education you would receive in a brick and mortar location? Will the degree be as respected?

Rasmussen College’s Kendall Bird thinks online degrees can work. While she states that there are clear pros and cons to online degrees vs. traditional education, for some people online degrees are ideal. “This is a great option for those who already have a time commitment with family and work. Online classes will mold with your schedule—log in to your online course at a time that works best for you as opposed to having to attend a lecture at a specific time.” It is not, however, ideal for everyone. For some people a more traditional programme is more useful. “Traditional education is better for those who need face-to-face communication. When you don't have direct interactions with your instructors, you may tend to do not as well with the work you already have.”

Amongst employers the views are certainly mixed. A recent survey conducted by Duke University, revealed that attitudes towards online education is dependent upon the field of expertise. When asked about their view towards potential employees being trained through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Human Resources staff for business, communication, and manufacturing fields were overwhelmingly supportive, with more than three-quarters responding positively. The Health, Finance, and Retail industries however were not nearly as supportive, feeling MOOCs left out the very important people skills necessary for their fields.

One key sign of the times regarding the acceptability of online degree programs can be found residing within U.S. News. It began issuing ratings of colleges and universities in 1983, and is still considered one of the premier ranking agencies. Recently it instituted a new category, Online Programs. Currently it rates online degree programs covering business, criminal justice, education, engineering, IT, and nursing.

So are online degrees a good idea? It really depends a great deal. The best prospective online degree students can do is ask themselves a few questions:

  • Is the field I am looking to enter in favour of online degrees or opposed to them?
  • Is the specific online degree program I am looking at being offered by an institution with recognized accreditation?
  • Is the online degree required to use the same curriculum as the traditional degree?
  • Will the diploma include the phrase “online” or not?
  • Do I have the self-discipline for an online programme?
  • Would I be missing out on necessary interpersonal skills development by doing an online degree?
  • Would I prosper better in a traditional programme, and is a traditional programme a realistic option for me?

Ultimately it is up to the individual to determine whether or not an online degree is a good idea. For some people it is a very viable option, while for others it might be best to consider other possibilities. As with so many other things, one can only solve this through careful examination of the issues. It’s up to you.

James Hinton is a life long learner with ambitions to become a university professor. Unfortunately for those ambitions, his four daughters are good at demonstrating how boring he would be.

Please share any comments, feedback, or questions below. We are especially interested in hearing from anyone who has experience with an online degree. Why did you make that choice? Are you happy with this educational route? Please let us know!