Will Employers Embrace Online Degrees?

Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note

Will Employers Embrace Online Degrees?
Jeff Hankins, Publisher

The transformation of higher education is accelerating as tuition costs continue to soar and state governments maintain or reduce funding.

The single biggest development is the explosive growth of online classes and degree programs. Arkansas' colleges and universities increasingly find themselves competing with national for-profit businesses and schools across the country. Likewise, the state's universities are able to compete for students globally.

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I'm curious about how employers are going to respond to this phenomenon. In the early days of online degrees, they were seen as inferior to those that required actual classroom attendance. Today, thanks to video technology, students and professors are able to have significantly more interaction from wherever they may be. But are the educational experiences truly equal?

College constituencies are split on the issue. Administrators see big revenue and enrollment growth opportunity through online offerings. Faculty fear job losses and loss of shared governance control of courses, and many traditionalists aren't confident online courses are up to par. Students enjoy the flexibility and convenience of class schedules, but for certain courses miss the personal interaction and campus college life.

A 2009 study by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education found that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." Some of that 12-year research included K-12 settings.

The profit margins for online degrees ultimately will be substantially higher for universities because of higher student-to-professor ratios and the lack of building overhead. This can't be the only reason for expanding online education, but economic realities make it a major consideration.

Higher education inflation is as out of control as health care costs, and the current trends can't continue because at some point the investment in high-dollar schools won't be justified or affordable. The top 30 universities in the country charge an average of about $50,000 in annual tuition. A $200,000 undergraduate education plus law, medical or graduate school is an astronomical cost. Both state and private colleges in Arkansas remain very competitive in both cost and quality, but tuition costs have soared like everywhere else. At the state schools, public funding has not kept up with growth.

Congress appears to be fed up with the escalating default rates on student loans. Far too many students accept scholarship money, federal grants and student loans, then have a good time at college for a year or two and drop out. They don't have enough advanced education to secure a job that will enable them to pay back the loans.

The alternative online degree programs continue to improve in quality thanks to technology and the willingness of faculty members to embrace the concept. After attending a handful of discussions among business leaders and educators on this topic, a few concerns seem to be common.

One, there's sincere concern that the texting generation, already lacking interpersonal communication skills, desperately needs classroom interaction. If we're going to move business education toward a curriculum that requires more team projects, then traditional classes are essential. But lecture-hall classes that routinely have 100 students or more could be ideal for online substitutions.

The convenience factor is substantial. Many students - especially older ones who might have children - need to work or take care of children during the day, then take classes at night. One example described to me is a single mom who gets her children to bed around 8:30 and then spends a few hours each night taking online graduate courses.

Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas system, told a group recently that universities have to embrace not only online offerings, but also changes in the traditional scheduling of classes - the fall, spring and summer semesters. Someone who decides in late September to enroll in college shouldn't have to wait until January.

It seems to me a blended approach would be ideal. Certain types of courses are perfectly suited for online delivery, while others must require classroom settings for collaboration, hands-on teaching and lab work.

As employers, we have to be open-minded about traditional vs. online degree programs. But we also must hold colleges accountable for delivering quality courses and degrees that lead to well educated, qualified employees.

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via email at JHankins@ABPG.com, followed on Twitter @JeffHankins and connected with at Facebook.com/Jeff.Hankins and LinkedIn.com/in/JeffHankins.)