Are Online Degrees as Valuable as Traditional College Diplomas?

Many millennials are turning to online education to avoid massive amounts of student debt.
More students are turning to online courses as the price for college increases. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Dec 5, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up with constant technology and personal computers. That might explain why they see such a value in online education.

A recent poll by Northeastern University showed that 18 to 29 year olds had a more negative view about attending college because of the high cost, and a more positive opinion about online classes than their older counterparts. The survey also showed more than half of the millennials had taken an online course.

Online education is attracting hundreds of thousands of students a year. Perhaps this is why more brick-and-mortar universities are searching for an online identity.

This week Wellesley College announced that it will offer free online classes to anyone with an Internet connection as part of the nonprofit project edX. Earlier this year, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to fund and launch the online platform.

More: Harvard and MIT Want to Educate You for Free

Online education was even the talk in Washington this week when a group of panelists convened to discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), which is an open source network like edX. These courses are very much like correspondence classes in the early 20th century.

But there are still those universities that only exist in a virtual world and students pay to attend. Are they as beneficial to students as attending a two- or four-year college?

“It depends at what level and what subject,” says Isabelle Frank, dean of Fordham College of Professional and Continuing Studies. “In general, fully online degrees are not valued as highly as degrees from brick-and-mortar institutions. This is because online-only universities do not have the faculty quality and interaction that occurs with full-time faculty and secure positions.”

She says that Fordham has online master programs and some online courses, but the model is “that of a small seminar style class with a lot of faculty feedback and involvement.”

Just like a physical college, a quality online education depends on the institution.

For example, students at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business take online classes and communicate with other students around the world—something students 25 years ago couldn’t have dreamed of doing.

“This affords the opportunity to learn leadership, team-building and managerial skills by solving problems and coordinating efforts for projects through the process of establishing real-time meetings, coordinating time zones and dealing with potential language issues,” Sher Downing, executive director of online academic services at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said. “This value cannot be mirrored as easily in a traditional classroom, and for many companies with offices located around the world, this is a valuable skill, when the workforce is required to handle these types of situations.”

Downing said that students can save money by taking online classes because they no longer have to commute, live on or near a campus or relocate.

The millennials surveyed by Northeastern University are keen to take online courses. In fact, nine in 10 said online classes should be used as a tool and mixed with other teaching methods. The poll also found that students want flex­i­bility, which is exactly what online colleges offer.

Employers may not yet see an online degree in the same light as a traditional university but that is likely to change in the near future. It may just be that millennials, who don’t want to go in debt for an education like some of their parents did, are just a bit ahead of educators and employers.