Wayne, 61, has a Ph.D. in business management, but almost no one in his life knows it. Nearly 20 years ago, he decided he wanted to further his education and stay open to new career opportunities, so he enrolled in a for-profit online university and wrote a 200-page dissertation, covering all expenses himself.
A few years later, he’d be pretending it never happened.
“I was very proud of my work,” Wayne tells MEL. “I added it to my résumé and applied for jobs. In almost every interview, they asked about the Ph.D. and then remarked, ‘Oh, it’s just an online degree.’”
Wayne says getting the Ph.D. was easier than getting a job. “I wasn’t really prepared to have people look down on it so much,” he says. “I got so tired of defending it, after about the third time, I just deleted it from my résumé altogether.”
These for-profit online universities have been under increased scrutiny in the last decade, but Wayne isn’t alone in his experience. A stigma around online degrees still exists, even if the school is accredited or the degree is secondary.
Matt, a 23-year-old in Canada, has yet to land a job after receiving his bachelor’s in late 2018 from Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, a liberal arts school with an online program. For months, Matt has filled out applications for entry-level bank teller jobs. He’s 23, living at home and feeling frustrated: “Here I am with sales experience from a recent job and a full university bachelor degree, still applying to minimum-wage positions and coming up empty-handed.” He believes it’s the online degree holding him back.
And it doesn’t help that he’s competing in an increasingly crowded field. According to the U.S. Census, “more than one-third of the adult population in the United States has a bachelor’s degree or higher, marking the first time in decades of data.” However, this has led to what Harvard researchers have deemed “degree inflation.” As more jobs require and are filled by people with college degrees, the value of a college degree lessens. In other words, it’s not the guaranteed ticket to the middle class it once was.
According to Staci McIntosh, an employment author and HR consultant, the stigma and mechanics around online degrees have grown much more complicated in the past decade. On one hand, because “just about every major university has online-degree options, online degrees being viewed as ‘less than’ is not the case.” On the other hand, what McIntosh labels “diploma mills” still exist, and people should watch out for them.
“A diploma mill is a business pretending to be a college,” she explains. “They lure you in with promises that you can complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree quickly, with very little effort. Human resources departments know the diploma mill ‘red flags’ and generally check carefully.” Staci advises anyone thinking about pursuing an online degree check that the school is listed on the United States Department of Education’s list of accredited online programs.
“For most people, where they got the degree won’t matter too much,” McIntosh says. “I see people all the time wasting their money on fancy and expensive colleges thinking the cache of a specific name will get them the job. It won’t.”
McIntosh cautions that a degree is no substitute for experience: “I don’t recommend that people go into debt getting [an online degree], thinking that specific college name or degree is going to get them the job over candidates with more applicable work experience. The degree itself can make a difference. The name of the college usually will not.”
Matt, in Canada, found this out the hard way when he was a finalist for a bank teller position but lost the job to a candidate with banking experience. “I was applying for an entry-level job, so I wasn’t expected to have experience,” he laments. “Gone are the days,” he says, when you can enter the business world with just an education.
When can the degree be beneficial? “When a company has 50 people apply for a job, they need to narrow it down somehow,” McIntosh says. “If everyone has about the same level of experience, then the degree becomes the tie-breaker to determine who might get the job.”
Wayne now works at in an engine plant, a job he didn’t use his Ph.D. to get. “Very few people know I even have [the degree],” he says. “Though I do use some of the information from my class work in my job.”
Physically being on campus grants students resources like work experience from campus jobs and internship connections or advice from career centers and student networks. Some peers have parents, friends or older siblings in influential positions who can make a recommendation.
The lack of those resources has been Matt’s biggest struggle, he says. “When pursuing an online degree, there is no help from the institution for getting [into] a career. There aren’t any co-op programs or counselors who can help set interviews with companies.” And when you’re out, Wayne says, “be prepared for people to snub you for ‘not going to a real school.'”
“Being online is much harder,” Matt concludes. “I graduated with the degree, but since it’s online, I feel that’s pretty much the end of the relationship [with the school].”