If you’re like me, you can’t be on the Web for five minutes without coming face-to-face with about 85 different flashing banner ads for online degrees and colleges. In fact, there’s an excellent chance that as you read this, there’s an ad fitting that description in the top right corner of this very page (and if there’s not, there probably will be on the next post you read). I’ve explained why these ads are everywhere in a previous post about affiliate marketing and why thousands of Internet nerds want you to fill out interest forms for University of Phoenix and the like.
Natalie wants to know more about this whole online-school situation. She writes:
Hey Judge Josh,
I was just trying to search through your advice articles and and noticed I couldn’t find anything on online colleges or online degree programs. This is something that I’ve been wondering about for a while, so thought I’d bring it up to you since now it’s actually something I might go for, but I want to make sure it’s the right decision.
My local community college just signed an “articulation agreement” with University of Maryland University College (basically the cyber-college of the UMD system). I noticed that Full Sail University also has an online program for music business that I’d love to take since that’s a degree hard to come by in Texas, but would it carry the same weight as an on-campus degree from the same school, the UMD system, or one of similar prestige? Would a future employer be as impressed with an online degree?
And thank you, Natalie. Well, this is one of those giant-can-of-worms subjects, so although I’ll try to be brief, this one does require a bit of background info.
Online schools, most of them for-profit, have exploded over the last 10 years as you well know. And for good reason. As all of their marketing departments will tell you, they are indeed “ideal for busy professionals” since you can do the coursework on the Web whenever times allows, you don’t have to drive to campus every week, etc.
The colleges themselves love online courses for a similar reason: they’re cheap as hell to offer. If all your students are at home on their computers, then you don’t need to buy giant swaths of real estate and spend tens of millions of dollars on gleaming student centers and modern dormitories and swank classrooms in lovely new buildings named after famous alumni or rich alumni donors. Hell, the professor doesn’t need to come in, either. She can stay home and grade your work in her sweatpants (or, pajamas, or the nude, or a mascot costume, or whatever you people wear when you’re studying at home these days).
BUT, of course, you’re gonna pay the same expensive tuition (or very close) for online courses. Yeah, see how that works? 🙂 No wonder colleges love the Internet, eh?
Yeah, so certainly there are some obvious upsides to online education. There are also some obvious downsides. If you’re the type of person who needs to ask a lot of clarification questions as you go, then the computer screen isn’t a good substitute for an in-the-flesh instructor. And certain subjects are not good fits for learning online. Psychology and sociology are probably fine. If you’re learning to speak Chinese, then online probably won’t cut it.
But none of this matters a lick if the quality of the online colleges and degrees doesn’t measure up to that of their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Do they? Well, I’m afraid you get the same unsatisfying-but-true answer that you get a lot of the time around here — it depends. 🙂
Some do and some don’t — just like traditional, public, brick-and-mortar schools, some are outstanding and some are a giant waste of money and a giant majority of them are somewhere in between. Since online schools started to become popular, a heated debate has ensued about the quality of the online degrees — whether they are, as my wonderfully witty trite headline suggests, legit contenders or weak pretenders.
You should not be shocked to learn that one side of that debate tends to deride and belittle the online schools as low-rent, inferior imitations of traditional university degrees. You should be even less shocked to learn that a majority of those people represent traditional universities and their traditional degrees. Higher education is big business, and online education is a great disruptor of that business by siphoning off students.
Naturally, traditional colleges would love to stop that from happening, and discrediting the quality of the education is a great strategy to that end. That doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes correct, and that sometimes online schools (or other for-profit schools that are brick and mortar) don’t have bad faculty or curricula. Surely some do; just make sure you consider the source and the source’s motivation when you hear those types of accusations.
One thing’s for sure: the traditional method of delivering a college education is being choked to death, it’s turning blue and it doesn’t have much time left. I’m talking about the old model of One Guy With All the Knowledge (your professor) delivering All the Knowledge to a group of you Grasshopper Students via a lecture hall, and then having all the Grasshopper Students memorize that knowledge and then regurgitate it to the One Guy in a test or paper.
The for-profits, in my opinion, seem to be a little bit more hands-on, and I think that’s excellent and necessary and I hope it shakes the tree of traditional education enough so that they’ll follow suit. I also think it’s natural, given that a lot of the for-profits and online schools tend to host both students and teachers who have a lot of professional work experience, whereas our traditional universities are stocked with highly educated men and women who have never worked outside a university teaching role.
And that’s fine for certain areas of study: the humanities and the sciences come to mind. But for majors and degrees that are more vocationally focused — and I’m talking about anything from business to criminal justice to nursing to auto mechanics, and plenty more — then it’s hard to argue that a teacher who has extensive work experience in the field does not bring a superior knowledge base to the classroom. (Now, whether they’re any good at actually TEACHING you any of what they know is an entirely different question…check RateMyProfessors.com for that).
So, I know that’s a big fat non-definitive answer for you, Natalie, but I guess that’s the way of the world. I would give you some generic advice, though, that I think can apply to your and most other people’s situations:
1) Research the online school/degree you’re looking into. This is a given, I know, but worth repeating. Ask people who already work in the field what they and the people who manage their hiring think about the program — in this case, the music-business program at Full Sail.
2) Research the professors. Look them up on the professor-rating sites, and of course on the school’s website itself. What are their credentials? Where have they worked, and what degrees do they hold? This is a good starting point. Then use your old friend Google and check them out. Are they respected in their own field? Do they hit the speaker’s circuit, do they publish papers? You don’t need a “yes” on every single question here, but these are just areas where you can start to flesh out the people behind the school.
3) Be sure that federal financial aid is available at the online college you’re looking at. Look up the school’s FAFSA codes here so you’ll know that it’s eligible for federal funds.
4) If you’re still in doubt, stick to reputable institutions. The category-killer of all online schools is obviously the University of Phoenix. U of P actually runs a side business teaching traditional universities how to design and implement online courses and degrees, so they definitely are the leader in infrastructure and experience in that regard. Other online programs that I’m familiar with and feel comfortable saying are legit programs are: Capella University, Westwood College, Full Sail, American Intercontinental, Devry and Western International University.
(I’ve not attended or worked for any of these, mind you, but I’m familiar enough with them that I don’t have any hesitation recommending them as legit programs, knowing you won’t trust my advice anymore if I’m wrong).
More than anything, employers by and large are more impressed with what you can do than where you got your degree. Because online degrees are newer, some employers are going to have to be convinced that online education can hold up to traditional education; however, those that have come before you are doing a pretty good job of convincing them.
Bottom line: If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t be afraid to go to an online school, especially if, as is your case, the program you want isn’t being offered at a brick-and-mortar nearby.
That’s my two cents on the subject (more like four cents, looking at the length of this thing). What do you all think? Let us know in the comments below. Have a good night!